Abdul Kalam: Back to school - by R. Prasannan Back   Home  
From doctor to professor to schoolmaster. Like his fire-winged missiles, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is making a re-entry--into school ground zero.
You can't catch the young in college. I want to catch them younger at school. I want to fire them with a scientific vision.
Missile-armed India won't miss him. He will be there initially at Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science, and then scouting school grounds, spotting talent, seeking more Kalams, Chidambarams, Satish Dhawans, Vikram Sarabhais and Homi Bhabhas. Or maybe pure scientists like Raman or Chandrasekhar. In the next two years, or by the time the earth orbits twice more around the sun, as Kalam likes to put it, he wants to talk to at least a hundred thousand schoolchildren.

They will, he thinks, realise his unfulfilled dream. Not the dream of the Avatar reusable missile, nor the inter-continental ballistic missile Surya. The unfulfilled dream is much simpler. In 20 years he dreams of the Prime Minister of India being invited to G-8 meetings.

Not as an observer. But as a full member. "I want India to be called a developed country, not a developing country."

Kalam has left the topmost scientific job in the country, that of principal scientific adviser to the government, to fellow bomb-builder Dr R Chidambaram. But he is going to do what he has been doing in the last 40 years. The world thought he was making rockets in the first 20 years; and missiles in the subsequent 20 years. Ask him and he would cry a God-forbidding ayyo! in his Rameswaram English. "I was building teams," he would put the record straight.

It is not the affected humility of a genius who innovated the third world's first re-entry know-how. It is the first lesson that he, as a young scientist, learnt on his rocketing way to become India's best known scientific face. He learnt it from the nuts-and-bolts sage, Satish Dhawan, rated by many as India's greatest scientific administrator. When the first satellite launch vehicle test fell dud into the sea, Dhawan, then chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), virtually took the blame. When the SLV (satellite launch vehicle) finally took off, he told Kalam to hold the press conference. "I was as much part of the first team as of the second one. But Dhawan took the blame; when it came to credit he passed it on to his team. Which management school in the world teaches you this?"

A good part of the telephone directories of Bangalore and Hyderabad today are composed of Kalam's team-members. He now wants to make those volumes, and the phone books of India's other cities, thicker. "You can't catch the young in college. By the time they reach college, they would have decided what to study and what to become. I want to catch them younger at school. I want to fire them with a scientific vision." That vision, he believes, will ring in parliament, in the media, in the agricultural fields, across the country.

Many, especially in the armed forces, believe that Kalam often bit more than he could chew. His strength has been aeronautics and rocketry where he delivered what he promised. (Incidentally, Kalam believes that aeronautics is one of India's core competencies. Perhaps the man and the country's vision have become inseparable.) But when he diversified into tank-making and AWACS (Airborne Early Warning And Control System)-building, he floundered.

Maybe. But India's techno-wizards do not look at the world as one big market where everything is available for a price. "No one will give you critical technologies," Kalam has been saying. Technology, they know, is available only to those who have it. If you know how to make an Arjun, there will be sellers knocking at your door with T-90s and Abrams. If you don't know, you may get T-52s in 2001. If your LCA (light combat vehicle) promises to be good, they will sell you Mirages and Sukhois. The gears of a free-trading world, the Kalams believe and truly so, are oiled by regimes of technology denial.

Kalam's vision 2020 is of a technologically self-reliant India. It is a race against time. "After the first war of independence it took 90 years for us to win freedom," he admits. "But that was the period when the country generated the best leaders and scientists." The scientists too were fighting for freedom. "They were telling the rulers that our minds were superior."

That was a 20th century story. Now into the 21st century, Kalam wants to prepare India for another launch--into the G-8. From the schoolground launchpad.
Published in Week magazine.