Book Review: This ‘Political History of Technology in India’ Couldn’t Resist Stereotypes 

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Apr 6, 2020 10:54 AM
Book Review: This ‘Political History of Technology in India’ Couldn’t Resist Stereotypes Midnight’s Machines 
Snapshot
  • What could have been a detailed study about how public policy, politics and technology have interacted in India becomes yet another text to attack the BJP for reasons real and imagined.

Midnight's Machines: A Political History of Technology In India. Arun Mohan Sukumar. Penguin Random House India. Rs 290.56 (Kindle Edition). Pages 236.

Midnight’s Machines could have been a refreshing attempt to study the technology odyssey of the Indian state through the prism of her politics – including the values, visions, polity, and prime ministers that make up that politics.

The author, Arun Mohan Sukumar, achieves this to a significant extent, and yet, a binary narrative that he wants to see, where none exists, mars the objectivity of the book.

Prime Minister at ISRO (PMO) 
Prime Minister at ISRO (PMO) 

In the introduction itself, the author makes a not-very convincing attempt to project Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approach to technology on the vision of Madan Mohan Malaviya, the famous Indian freedom fighter who was also a Hindu Sanghatan leader.

This is unconvincing, because the political movement from which Modi comes from has many more diverse and stronger streams of influence with respect to technology.

This problematic stand aside, the book does a decent job of presenting a coherent narrative with respect to the way politics, values, and technological development interacted with each other in India, particularly during the Nehru and Indira Gandhi regimes.

It also provides significantly detailed view of what happened during the liberalisation period of late 1980s and early 1990s - particularly with respect to telecom and IT.

Let us consider the Nehruvian era.

The author points out one of the initial set backs to the development of a solar cooker, which was a good technological initiative by the scientists of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL).

Nehru, eating vegetables cooked in the solar cooker, became a headline. The prime minister, having alerted himself to the problem of patents by ‘the long and ultimately aborted negotiations with Merck and other Western pharmaceutical companies over the manufacture of penicillin’, gave 'permission to Egypt to adopt the solar cooker design at no cost'.

According to the author, the failure of this solar cooker technology was instrumental in turning the ‘gaze’ of Nehru from ‘niche’ technologies to big industrial projects'. (pp. 27-8)

The author almost obsessively repeats the phrase 'the temples' of Nehru, which were the words Nehru had supposedly whispered to himself when he visited the Bhakra Nangal in 1956.

They are nowhere in Nehru’s official speeches, including the one he made at Bhakra Nangal, but the story perhaps has its source in a news report.

In fact, during his speech at the inauguration of the dam in 1954 he had called the dam a place holier than any temple, mosque, church or Gurudwara.

But more crucially, the author somehow has missed out on the skepticism that seemed to have crept inside Nehru towards such huge dams.

This was shown in his speech to engineers and technocrats just two years later wherein he referred to the 'diseases of gigantism'.

Was Nehru trying to free himself in his later years from Soviet and Western influences –and that too in such an important domain as people-oriented technological development?

The author does indeed suggest something in that direction.

Ernst Schumacher, the cult economist who daringly explored a kind of Gandhian alternative to the dominant Western industrial economic model was invited by the Planning Commission in 1961. But Schumacher was not much in favour of the five-year plans and Nehru's fascination with the huge dams and other high-end technologies.

Instead, he advocated that he wanted Nehru and his planners to abandon the five-years plan of industrialisation but make 'every Indian child, woman, man, everybody up to grandma—who could handle a seedling, to just [plant] one tree a year for five years running’.

He argued that the ecological and economic benefits from such an endeavour 'would outweigh those of planned industrialization'.

In other words Schumacher advocated that India should focus on technology that is ‘close to nature’, is labour intensive and consumes little foreign exchange'.

But the author tells us that Nehru’s advisors, already deeply committed to the ‘temples of Nehru’, rejected the suggestions and the ‘alternate technology’ movement that Schumacher envisioned died as quickly in India as it started. (p.69)

But it was not over.

Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Nehru, when she was India’s Prime Minister, tried to make political capital out of the 'appropriate technology' movement that was becoming quite a fad in the Western counter-culture movement. By 1973, Schumacher had published his cult classic Small is Beautiful.

Arun Sukumar states that 'Schumacher’s foolish romanticism produced exactly the narrative Indira’s government needed to cover up its failure to industrialise, and to keep the economy on a tight leash.'

Here, he observes that while in the United States, where the counter-culture movement originated, it brought 'computing closer to the individual' in India it enabled the state to create a powerful bureaucratic stranglehold 'that effectively prevented ‘everyday’ technologies from reaching people'. (p.71)

So there is a dark continuity between Nehru’s mega technological project and the so-called ‘appropriate technology movement’ with which India’s socialist state flirted under Nehru’s daughter.

Book Review: This ‘Political History of Technology in India’ Couldn’t Resist Stereotypes 
Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru (Wikimedia Commons) 

Meanwhile, the ideological opposition to Indira Congress represented mainly by the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) and later the BJP, had developed its own approach to technology.

Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya (1916-1968), the main ideologue of BJS, in his criticism of Soviet style planning and technological imposition made the following observation:

We should have our own concept about agriculture and industry. Instead of importing technology, we should invent a new technology which suits our situation. We need a technology which would provide for total employment and would remove disparity in incomes. By so doing, we shall be able to raise the standard of living of the people. Modern technology, in the West is also being developed along these lines. But the Second Five Year Plan here is based on pre-recession technology and economic concepts.

In 1977, the Hindu thinker Ram Swarup (1920-1998) gave a lecture sponsored by 'The Appropriate Technology Development Association' of Lucknow in which he observed:

In the last 200 years, a technology has come into being which favours centralization, large-scale operations and circular production. ... there are other technologies possible which work for decentralization, for individual and local production and yet are as productive and as efficient as the best that we know. If we cannot evolve this gechnology, Gandhian Economics will remain a dreamy stuff, soothing to the ear and warming to the heart but ineffective and irrelevant.

When it comes to the BJP, Modi, and technology, the book develops a stereotyped and blinkered view.

The above views may sound utopian but so were the views of Malaviya.

The point is that all these streams had gone into the worldview which makes the ecosystem of Modi. But they are more Gandhian and cautious with respect to the choice of technology, giving importance to the impact they may make on society and environment.

So, in a study which moves beyond stereotypes, their views would have become important.

Even from the point of view of the author, Veer Savarkar, with his favourable view on the machine as a great benefactor of humanity would have been more relevant than Malaviya. But again, we find him missing.

The author takes the Nehruvian view that ‘Indians at the margins of society would be easily overwhelmed by technology’ and thus get ‘chained to it’, and juxtaposes it with the mission of Modi which seeks ‘the application of technology to farming, fisheries, forest resource management, policing and even prison systems, with the idea that enhanced connectivity and the ready availability of data can help India address the needs of its most under-served communities.’ (p.186)

Of course Modi’s period has occurred at ‘a sweet spot in the arc of India’s quest for machines’, but for Arun Sukumar that is not the only reason for the brazen embrace of technology by Modi.

To him, somehow, the Congress has a more people-sympathetic approach to technology. And this is guided by concerns for the corruption of democratic values by technological growth.

As against this, the BJP is uninhibited about technology and this nonchalance is rooted in its Hindutva worldview:

He concludes that while the Congress is alive to the concerns of technology being great ‘corruptor’, the BJP uses technology as the great ‘disruptor.’

This binary stereotyping itself has glaring holes.

The author himself had pointed out earlier in the book how Sangh outfits like Swadeshi Jagran Manch are uncomfortable and find with Modi’s technology thrust, a ‘frustrating figure’. He states the Sangh ‘has no particular affinity towards technology’. (p.188)

The author also sidelines how the Indira regime made India dependent on Soviet technology and how Soviet aid arm-twisted India in accepting inferior tech. Such an import of technology went against the Swadeshi spirit of Constitution makers but fitted the ‘socialist’ political agenda of the Congress.

The book has also ignored the way NDA-I initiated an innovative technological attempt to preserve India’s indigenous knowledge system and made it a model for other developing countries.

Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, who is mentioned fleetingly in the context of the world genome project, had earlier given the slogan ‘yes to computer chips but no to potato chips’ when globalisation commenced.

There is a link between this slogan and the ‘Make in India’ project of present day Modi government. An exploration of that link would have provided objective insights into the ideological orientation of BJP with respect to technology.

And Modi’s own fondness for technology in accelerating India’s inclusive growth comes from quite a number of streams – from Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee who contributed to the commencement of self-reliant nuclear technology in India to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.

When Dr Meghnad Saha was striving to establish the Institute of Nuclear Physics in the newly-born Indian state, Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee became a strong supporter of Saha in this effort. He also got the University senate to accept the Tata Trust seed grant for a cyclotron as early as 1941.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with later former President APJ Abdul Kalam 
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with later former President APJ Abdul Kalam 

Curiously, while the author tries to build an entire techno-worldview for Modi based on limited references to technology that Madan Mohan Malaviya made, he completely ignores the interaction of Dr. Mukherjee - in fact he is not mentioned even once in the book.

Dr. Kalam became famous with his popular hand book India 2020 (co-authored with Y S Rajan) for using technology for national development in major domains in a people-oriented way. The book dominated the national best-seller charts for almost a decade.

Its popularity was also partly because it rode on the wave of nationalism which followed the nuclear tests by Vajpayee government.

Again, this should have been part of any narrative on India and technology.

But again, the author does not seem to have bothered about it. In fact, the technological mission that Modi had made an integral part of his politics and action, has stemmed largely from India 2020.

It may not be a coincidence that the book mentions Dr Kalam only fleetingly, here in the context of SLV and subsequent Agni missile development.

But when the same book tries to sell the sub-mediocre oscillation of Rahul Gandhi over Aadhar card as a kind of high moral dilemma, then we do realise the politics that guides this study of the politics of technology.

Over all, one can see this book as a kind of new front opened to attack BJP’s pro- technology narrative with quite good selective scholarship.

And like all anti-BJP academic work it packages its anti-BJP thrust with a good assessment of Nehru-Indira-Rajiv and P.V.N eras.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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