Why India’s space programme can’t be imagined without Nehru

The whole world is praising India because of ISRO’s amazing achievement.

And this is thanks to a visionary Prime Minister called Jawaharlal Nehru who, as far back as 1962, when India was still struggling to feed itself, realized the importance of space research and the necessity of funding it, and supported the creation of INCOSPAR, the Indian National Committee for Space Research, under the leadership of Vikram Sarabhai, which later became ISRO in 1969.

To understand why Nehru’s conception of INCOSPAR was so visionary, consider this: even when Mangalyaan became the toast of the world, there were articles in the western press asking why India was spending on space research when so many of its people did not have a roof over their head, did not have enough to eat, did not have basic electricity, etc.

NYT Cartoon

Think now of 1962, when things in India were so much worse. Most people then would have said this is a really stupid idea. These were the days long before the Green Revolution, where we had to import grain to feed our people. Our country was in a shambles because the British only developed what was convenient to them and let the countryside rot. One of the big reasons for the BIMARU states being what they are is a deliberate British policy of squeezing them dry so they would have no money left over for any future “revolutions” similar to 1857. They deliberately encouraged the zamindari system that is still the cause of so much misery.

Now try to imagine yourself as the PM of a country in such dire straits – I know it is hard – and ask yourself – when people are starving, most of the country has no electricity or water supply, industry is in its infancy – would you SPEND MONEY on SPACE RESEARCH???? Remember, in those days, the state was the only patron. There was no private funding. And you needed a lot of money to establish a new institution. Nehru provided that because he believed in the vision.

Hell, I’ll be honest. I would not have. I’d have said that we have far more pressing concerns to resolve.

TOI burns NYT

But that’s where it takes a visionary. Someone who can see farther, much farther, than you and me. Someone who was well-read, well-traveled, who understood the power of science and technology far more than his formal exposure to them would have allowed – which showed how open-minded he was in adopting new ideas and trusting and supporting bright people like Sarabhai and Bhabha. He was willing to learn from them why space research is important and understand the scientific basis.

Nehru was able to see 50 years into the future. He realized that even though India was one of the poorest countries in the world then, with really dire problems, it had the technical manpower in scientists like Bhabha and Sarabhai, and it would be a shame to waste those brains. He knew that by nurturing ideas like these, he was setting the foundation for a great India decades later.

It is the same vision that made him understand the need for educational centres of excellence such as IITs and IIMs.

Understand, also, that in the poor, agrarian India of 1962, these were “big-bang” reforms. Any number of people could have ridiculed Nehru for choosing to spend precious money on the IITs, the big PSUs, the massive dams, and the space program. But his stature was so great that no one doubted Panditji’s vision. Everyone assumed that if such a learned man as Nehru said something, he must have studied it carefully and consulted with experts. A far cry from our present PM, who says that all the experts are wrong and he is right (as he did on demonetization, saying Nobel Laureate economists did not understand India’s situation.)

When you are a great, well-respected leader, you don’t need to force big-bang reforms down the throat of your people. People defer to you and automatically accept your ideas.

Unfortunately, his daughter pursued such terrible economic policies (there was licence Raj in Nehru’s time, but it was never as extreme as what Indira did) that the benefits of the IIT/IIM system did not immediately accrue to India – most of the bright minds left India in search of better opportunities. But the pendulum is now swinging the other way. Thanks to PV Narasimha Rao’s economic reforms, executed by Manmohan Singh, India began the process of liberalizing the economy – a process that was continued by Vajpayee and greatly accelerated during UPA 1 and 2. This has caused the reverse brain drain with the influx of foreign industry into India. Now we are reaping the benefits of Nehru’s IIT vision.

If this government, and successive governments, simply continue on the economic liberalization path started by PVN in 1992, India will one day be a first world country.

And we will have Nehru to thank for that. We will have the institutions he built to thank for that. And we will have his commitment to an inclusive, secular society to thank for that.

Yes, Nehru had his flaws. Nobody is denying that. He was prone to sycophancy in his later years, didn’t take criticism too well, and made enormous mistakes that still hurt us – Kashmir and 1962 to be particular. But these were not acts of malice or treason – they were simply errors in judgement.

But Nehru also did a lot of good things for us. And we are reaping the benefits of his vision today.

My late father (who was old enough to remember the freedom struggle) told me one thing when we were once discussing Nehru and I was telling him about Nehru’s flaws. He said yes, Nehru made some mistakes, but there is one thing you can never take away from him, and many other politicians of that era: Unlike today’s politicians, they were true patriots. They might have sometimes been petty, as Nehru was on occasion, but they would never sell out the country. You could never doubt their patriotism and their loyalty to India.

Today you have Johnny-come-latelys like Narendra Modi, who have the temerity to run down a great man like Nehru as someone who “ruined India.” The amazing thing is that this blatant lie has been accepted by a lot of Indians without much thinking.

But I actually don’t blame Modi for this. I blame the people of India. They should have known better about Nehru. The Indian people behaved like a big bunch of idiots in believing all the lies about Nehru; someone just marginally smarter than them took advantage of their idiocy.

The success of Modi’s oft-repeated canard that “Congress did nothing for India in 70 years” is proof of Goebbels’ philosophy that if you repeat a lie long enough, people will start believing that it is the truth.

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Dr. Seshadri Kumar Written by:

Seshadri Kumar is an R&D Chemical Engineer with a B.Tech from IIT Bombay and an M.S. and a PhD from the University of Utah, U.S. He writes regularly on political, social, economic, and cultural affairs at http://www.leftbrainwave.com

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