The Congress party has a Pavlovian response to any situation where the current Prime Minister comes into the limelight.
Two days ago (on 23 August), the successful landing of Chandrayaan-3 on the Moon’s southern side, saw Narendra Modi applauding this scientific feat.
But his appearance got the Congress’s goat, which then went into overdrive to give Jawaharlal Nehru most of the credit for the creation of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
The Congress President, Mallikarjun Kharge, was “These (space) accomplishments are a testament to the vision of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who emphasised and sincerely believed that a critical commitment to science could drive the spirit of development of our newly independent nation by igniting the spirit and minds of the people. Which was later followed by successive Prime Ministers.”
The Congress party too proclaimed on X (formerly Twitter): “India's voyage to the moon and beyond is a tale of pride, determination and vision. It was independent India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose scientific outlook and vision laid the foundation of Indian space research. Today, the success of Chandrayaan-III is a result of his early efforts.”
Nobody needs to deny Nehru his true contributions to science and technology (S&T), but the presumption that without him science and technology would not have found another supporter is seriously flawed.
Do we not remember the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science in 1909, nearly half a century before the IITs came on the scene, backed by Jamsetji Tata, and in the creation of which Swami Vivekananda played an indirect and inspirational role?
And when it comes to ISRO, it can hardly be said that Nehru did all the work. He just was around when the seed was planted.
In 1962, a committee called INCOSPAR (Indian National Committee for Space Research) was created with scientists and technocrats like Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai on board. ISRO was actually set up only in 1969, when Indira Gandhi was at the helm.
The real problem, though, is not about giving or denying credit to Nehru, but whether the Congress party, apart from paying lip service to his contributions to science and technology, actually understands what Nehru really stood for?
Nehru’s real contribution is not his support for creating an S&T base in India, but in firmly backing meritocracy, which is what enabled this transition.
Now, which party today, and especially the Congress, will ever utter one word in favour of meritocracy? Giving praise to ISRO’s scientists is fine, but these scientists emerged from a Nehruvian system that was meritocratic till recently.
On the other hand, every policy the Congress party advocates today is about giving preferential treatment to some group or the other, and handing out freebies.
Could an ISRO, a Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, or even the IITs and IIMs have emerged strong by mindlessly pursuing reservations and quotas, which Nehru believed amounted to “folly”?
It was meritocracy that created these great world-beating institutions.
Consider what Nehru wrote in an anguished to his chief ministers in June 1961, where he strongly advocated against extending reservations and quotas.
He wrote that India must get out of the “old habit of reservations and particular privileges being given to this caste or that group.” He was not against helping the disadvantaged, but this help must be given on economic considerations, and not caste. And most of the help must be through education.
“The only real way to help a backward group is to give opportunities in good education; this includes technical education, which is becoming more and more important,” Nehru wrote.
Further, he underlined his basic objections to quotas. “I dislike any kind of reservation, more particularly in services. I react strongly against anything which leads to inefficiency and second-rate standards. I want my country to be a first-rate country in everything. The moment we encourage the second-rate we are lost.”
He then asked a more pertinent question: “How are we going to build the public sector or indeed any sector with second-rate people?”
It is another matter, that Nehru and his daughter were also authors of socialism and the licence-permit raj, but that does not take away from an essential commitment to meritocracy that Nehru fostered.
ISRO is successful not because Nehru believed in S&T (many others also did so), but because he believed in a meritocracy.
Unfortunately, today’s Congress party has lost sight of the one true principle that Nehru fervently believed in.
Congress, the caste-based regional parties, and even the BJP are leading the country towards mediocrity by moving away from true meritocracy.
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