Kanti Bajpai | Times of India 

Why can’t we in India be more business-like? When we tested nuclear weapons in 1998, the government, the media, and the Indian public were spectacularly undignified. A lot of vulgar and foolish things happened in the ensuing months – intemperate statements by our leaders, media coverage that was adulatory and clownish, and public behaviour that was childish (handing out sweets in the streets).

Predictably, the Pakistanis punctured our bubble. They tested immediately and then attacked in Kargil to show that nuclear weapons did not scare them. Pakistan’s public reactions were as juvenile as ours, if not more so, which shows that South Asians are cut from the same cloth.

With India’s Agni V missile test two weeks ago and Pakistan’s Hatf IV Shaheen-1A test, we have had a replay of 1998. Missiles are not as big a deal as nuclear weapons, so our leaders were more restrained this time round. The media, though, was pretty much as bad as before, thinking it appropriate to talk a lot of nonsense about India’s ability to project power (to Europe, amongst other destinations). Unlike 1998, the public did not rush out into the streets to party, which was a relief; instead, the blogosphere, the new public square, lit up with commentary, most of which would shame a nine-year-old.

When the Agni V has been properly tested, it will certainly strengthen India’s deterrent with respect to China. Having said this, the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) goes back to the 1980s. That it managed to produce a missile which can carry a nuclear warhead 5,000 km is noteworthy but hardly the stuff of national celebration. After all, it took nearly 30 years to produce a missile of that range.

Any one of a dozen countries today could do it – and in short order. These include Japan and both the Koreas, just in Asia, and surely it would not take Australia very long. Pakistan’s latest Shaheen already has a range of 3,000 km, so it is not technologically beyond our next-door neighbour’s capabi-lity either. And Iranian missile technology is catching up fast.

The point is that missiles, as much as nuclear weapons, are old technology. Hopping up and down about them is silly. India’s scientists have not particularly distinguished themselves (nor have Indian social scientists). If we look at the number of scientific papers published in leading journals, patents filed, and inventions credited to Indians, our scientists do not rank high. China ranks well ahead, as do Japan and South Korea. Britain, with 60 million people, has had 76 Nobel laureates in science and technology.

India has had only one that worked in India (C V Raman, who worked in British and not independent India) and three that worked outside India (Har Gobind Khorana, Subramanyan Chandrashekhar and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, all in the US). There are probably only two Indian technologies that have international name-recognition – the Jaipur leg prosthetic device and the Nano mini car – which are home-grown.

Why are we so undignified over things like the missile test? The answer most likely is that we have so little to celebrate, with human development indicators lower in key areas than our South Asian neighbours and sub-Saharan Africa. Indians are eating less in calories terms than a decade ago. We have millions of more males than females in our population: the social consequences of this male surplus will be massive. Our education system is in a shambles. Our infrastructure is scarily bad. The only town in India with clean drinking water is Jamshedpur. We have a fiscal crisis looming, stuttering growth, rising prices, stagnating agriculture, caste and religious discrimination, partisan politics to the maximum, and policy paralysis. Governance, particularly at the state-level, where one absurd chief minister replaces another, is so awful that you run out of adjectives.

If India wants to be respected and secure in the long run, it should celebrate clean renewable energy and the eradication of polio far more than the launching of a new missile. That would be worth many sweets in the streets.