It is now the norm for the main Opposition party to praise the “scientists” and hold back on complimenting the government for major technological advances in India. While this tactic may look politically opportune, it does little to advance either the cause of science or national security. Worse still, it perpetuates the dangerous myth that India’s science and technology policy is somehow independent of political direction.
We saw the Congress party resort to the verbal gymnastic of praising the scientists and damning the government, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s first test of an anti-satellite weapon system. The Congress party’s reaction to India’s nuclear tests in 1998 was much the same: Cheers for the scientists but no compliments to the NDA government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The BJP’s attitude to developments during the UPA’s decade-old tenure in office was not very different. The party, under the leadership of Lal Krishna Advani, opposed the government’s efforts to advance historic nuclear reconciliation with the US that was launched by the Vajpayee government after the 1998 nuclear tests.
Before India’s political scene got so intensely polarised, there was a time when the Opposition celebrated the government’s national security achievements. It also offered close scrutiny of government policies on science and technology. When he was the leader of the Jana Sangh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was enthusiastic in his welcome of Indira Gandhi’s decision to conduct India’s first nuclear test in May 1974.
It is not that the Opposition has an obligation to extend knee-jerk support to the government on national security issues. India’s communists, for example, were critical of India’s nuclear tests in both 1974 and 1998. In an even earlier phase, a scientist of great international repute, Meghnad Saha, offered strong but constructive criticism of Nehru’s science and technology policies. Saha was elected to the Lok Sabha from Calcutta in 1952 as an independent candidate. Diversity is natural in a democracy and healthy arguments strengthen rather than weaken India’s national security.
Whether we agree with them or not, Vajpayee in 1974 and the communists in 1998 had no hesitation in expressing their policy preferences in an area where science, technology and national security came together. The Jana Sangh was always an advocate of India building nuclear weapons and the Left was ideologically opposed to the nuclearisation of India’s national security. Put simply, their positions were derived from political convictions.
Offering formal praise for scientists becomes an excuse to duck some real questions. Consider the following, for example: Is the Congress party for ASAT weapons or not? Do ASAT weapons increase or decrease India’s national security? Do they complicate or strengthen India’s deterrence vis-a-vis China and Pakistan? Are there international costs to the testing of ASAT weapons? More fundamentally, why has India not articulated a comprehensive military space strategy?
The political debate in the last few days has only been about whether PM Modi’s decision was appropriate amidst the elections. That may be a worthwhile question in itself, but in leaving the ASAT policy debate to the nerds on social media, the political class is abandoning its responsibility.
Decisions on building nuclear weapons or space weapons are not just about science or demonstrating technological capability. They reflect the strategic choices that the political leadership makes in consultation with top bureaucrats, military leadership and the technology departments. But in recent years, political leadership across the spectrum has often been tempted to take the easy way out.
“We have given a free hand to the armed forces” and “scientists know best” were some of the familiar tropes of the UPA government in dealing with the pressing but controversial issues during its tenure. The NDA government has undoubtedly been bolder in making explicit political choices about national security — whether it was in wrapping up the civil nuclear initiative with the US, ordering the bombing of Balakot or the testing of ASAT weapons. But, as a collective, we are a long way from a serious political debate on pressing challenges of technology policy. For all the political praise of science, India’s national spending on research and development has stagnated at 0.7 per cent of the GDP. China, whose GDP is nearly five times that of India, spends 2.1 per cent of its GDP on R&D. What this growing gap might do to India’s standing vis-a-vis China, one would think, would be of major interest to the country’s political parties.
Besides the aggregate size of spending, other issues deserve attention. What is the distribution of India’s total R&D spend across different areas? Is that distribution shaped by inertia or a serious appraisal of the national requirements? Must atomic energy, space and defence continue to get the lion’s share of the government spending? Must the political leadership leave it to the individual departments to decide on the priorities within their sphere?
There is even less attention devoted to a range of other issues — for example, the need to promote corporate and private sector investments in R&D and the importance of privatising the industrial components of the S&T empires of various government departments. Is there any interest among political parties in issues such as the declining attractiveness of science education, the limitations of India’s engineering studies, the deepening crisis in India’s universities and the policy obstacles to promoting technological innovation.
Developments in areas like artificial intelligence promise to rearrange modern industrial societies and rejig the global power hierarchy. But there is hardly any political debate on how best India can develop national capabilities in this area and how it might direct them to address pressing national challenges. The time is now for the two leading national parties to stop praising scientists and start debating the science policy challenges.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 2, 2019, under the title ‘Political blindspot, science polity’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express