Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in the news for suggesting that radars are affected by clouds and how he was possibly “the first person to use a digital camera in India in 1987 or 1988” during a television interview, that understandably has gone viral on social media channels.
But all the merriment and widely shared Internet memes about these statements notwithstanding, there is an important contextual point that Mr Modi makes, which is worth examining. The PM prides himself on being one of the most tech-savvy politicians and unabashedly admires all that smacks of the latest in technology.
Scholar Sujatha Subramanian calls this “techno-masculinity”. In a recent article in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Subramanian pointed out that technological progress has been a constant in Mr Modi’s vision for the Indian State, with his views on various subjects linked to technology widely quoted in the media. The use of technology was also a key part of Mr Modi’s 2014 election campaign. Look back at his use of hologram technology to speak at rallies which he alluded to during his recent TV interview. And then, of course, his much-talked-about use of the social media, especially Twitter, to galvanise young voters, and the NaMo app, which is a closed Twitter-like ecosystem, where anyone can sign up and post stuff like photographs, videos, website links, etc. In the absence of any real content moderation, the app is seen to be vulnerable to motivated slurs and other forms of abuse.
This narrative of technology, argues Subramanian, is part of the larger political positioning of Mr Modi as a strongman, and linked to the big picture of Hindutva where ideas of technological progress, military might, and physical strength are all mashed up, apparently towards the protection and progress of the nation.
“The hashtag #ModiHaiToMumkinHai, used in the aftermath of the Balakot airstrikes and the ASAT launch (to shoot down a satellite), projects Mr Modi as being the only one who can ward off threats to the nation, contributing to his image as a strong leader and a protector of the citizens. Discussions of Narendra Modi’s body and physical strength have been central in the narratives of him as an able leader,” Subramanian writes.
But paradoxically, this preoccupation with tech-fixes has come in the backdrop of a curious mixture of scientific success such as India’s Mars orbiter Mangalyaan reaching the intended orbit around Mars in 2014, the testing of the anti-satellite (ASAT) missile as part of Mission Shakti and a simultaneous growth of pseudo-science.
Many scientists have been scathing about the tone and tenor of recent editions of the Indian Science Congress. This January, India’s scientific community was aghast to hear bizarre and fantastical claims by a few speakers purportedly to establish the glory of ancient India. For example, one academic claimed that Kauravas were born through stem cell and test-tube technologies and that India knew all about guided missiles thousands of years ago. And that theoretical physics — including contributions by iconic figures like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein — is wrong.
Other presentations at the science congress which caused a stir was the suggestion by a scientist that gravitational waves would soon be renamed as “Narendra Modi waves”.
Many scientists have spoken out against what they see as an unhealthy alliance between some in the scientific establishment and the political leadership of the ruling party. “The current scientific establishment follows the diktat issued by the political overlords without a murmur. There is no dialogue, no exchange of opinion, no enquiring spirit. But scientists are not goats to be slaughtered at the altar of political propaganda,” lashed out Prof. Bikash Sinha, a former director of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, in a recent interview to a national newspaper.
This is not an isolated instance. While technology is increasingly mixed up with science in popular perception and the ability to use gadgets and apps including WhatsApp is seen as hallmarks of progress, fantastical claims and blurring of mythology and science have been on the ascendant in the past five years.
Take just a few examples. Two years ago, Satya Pal Singh, minister of state for human resources development responsible for higher education, made headlines for claiming that aeroplanes were first mentioned in the Ramayan. He also went on to say that the first working plane was made by an Indian called Shivakar Babuji Talpade, long before the Wright brothers. Prime Minister Modi himself once said that Ganesh, the elephant-headed god revered by Hindus, had an elephant head because cosmetic surgery existed in ancient India. Tripura chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb once publicly said that the Internet existed at the time of the Mahabharat.
This practice of mixing up science with mythology did not start with Mr Modi, but many feel that in the past five years pseudo-science has got a lot more legitimacy because those in positions of power are making odd and irrational statements.
There is no doubt that India’s Prime Minister is tech-savvy and obsessed with technology, which is all to the good. But it is important to recognise that technology comes out of basic science. And basic science does not prosper in an atmosphere of irrational superstition, myth making, myth-strengthening and trying to pass off pipedreams as historic events, as politicians from the ruling party have been doing, from the Prime Minister downwards.
If we do not arrest this slide into obscurantism, if we do not make a strong and conscious effort to foster rational thought and scientific temper, the vast majority of technologists being produced in India will continue to be condemned to writing software codes after the programmes have been thought up elsewhere, and to reverse engineer machinery that have been developed in other countries. We shall be like a nation of smartphone users where hardly anyone knows what is inside that phone, or how a particular app actually works.
Technologies of the new millennium have entered the world — artificial intelligence, medicine miniaturisation, renewable energy, clean mobility — and other technologies such as regular human travel through space or terraforming a planet are not far behind. All these stem from fundamental principles in physical and life sciences, and the basic test of a successful technology is its replicability.
Those who try to replace scientific rationale by myths are imperilling the present and the future of our nation.