‘What is so sacrosanct about A.P.J. Abdul Kalam?’

ARVIND SWAMINATHAN writes from Madras: The larger-than-life, conversation-stopping image of the former President of India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is the fruit of assiduous self-promotion, audacious political opportunism and pumped-up nationalism, combined with the gee-whiz ignorance of an uncritical media.

# A missile technologist who is routinely confused for a “nuclear physicist”.

# A scientist without a formal PhD—who was turned away from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) because he didn’t have the “requisite scientific credentials”—who happily uses the appendage “Dr”.

# A reverse-engineer who has presided over several failures as the in-charge of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme who is unquestioningly called “Missile Man”.

# And, although the masterstroke to make him President came initially from the Samajwadi Party, it is the BJP which has appropriated the Thirukkural-quoting, veena-playing, vegetarian “Kalam Iyer” as its favourite Muslim, thanks in part, as the Princeton scholar M.V. Ramana wrote, because of his ability to “dress up even mediocre work with the tricolour to pass them off as great achievements.”

However, in a nation thirsting for heroes, the question marks were airbrushed out of the frame by “inspiring” speeches bordering on the infantile and “motivational” books bordering on the banal.

Thankfully, some of the super-reverential mythology around Kalam is being dismantled.

Twice in the last few days, two prominent nuclear scientists have stood up to question Kalam’s clean chit to the “Pokhran II” tests conducted by the BJP-led NDA government of Atal Behari Vajpayee during its 13-month reign in 1998.

To rewind, Kalam’s former Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) colleague K. Santhanam described the “thermonuclear device” that was tested as a”fizzle”. Meaning: the yield was lower than what was claimed, and was certainly not what was desired. Santhanam said more tests were required to perfect what the device was supposed to produce: a hydrogen bomb.

But “Major General Prithviraj“, as Kalam was codenamed during Pokhran II, jumped in and declared the tests a success. And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too butted in, saying Kalam’s certificate was the last word.

Result: The gloves are off in the very secretive nuclear fraternity.

First P.K. Iyengar, the former chairman of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, hit back:

“What is so sacrosanct about Abdul Kalam? Even Albert Einstein made mistakes. Before the scientists on the site called New Delhi to confirm the tests, they should have checked the yield of the thermo-nuclear bomb with the seismic centre in London, with which India has a co-operation agreement. Dr Kalam did not check and doubts about the yield were there after the tests.”

Now, H.N. Sethna, the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who was the guiding force behind Pokhran I in 1974, has added his bit, saying Kalam was “not qualified” to speak on the subject:

“What did he (Kalam) know about extracting, making explosive-grade uranium? He didn’t know a thing. By being the President he appeared to wear the stature. He relied on atomic energy to gain additional stature.”

By no yardstick do M/s Iyengar, Sethna & Co represent the last word on the subject of Kalam, but by being unafraid to question an icon, they have done the nation (and Kalam) a service by bringing some balance to the myth-building.

Or have they?

Photograph: Karnataka Photo News

Also read: Should a former president fall at a Godman’s feet?

Surely, you must be joking, Mr President