When the history of modern Indian eloquence is written, Narendra Modi will go down as one of our great masters of rhetoric. His 24-minute address ostensibly to the ISRO scientists but really to the Indian public is a memorable feat. What Modi accomplished was to turn a setback into a resounding success.
Let us face it. After all the hype, build up, and expectations not only in India but world over, the failure of Chandrayaan-2 to make a soft landing on the moon’s south pole could easily have been a cause of collective grief if not national mourning. It could also have damaged India’s aspirations and claims to be a space superpower. Only a great leader with tremendous self-confidence and the capacity to move millions could prevent the disappearance of the lander from casting a pall of gloom on the nation. After all, an incredible amount of time, effort, energy, and yes, money had gone into the mission. A billion aspirations were riding on its success.
PM Modi, like his predecessors, understands only too well the political significance and value of success in space. Indeed, science and technology has always been India’s holy cow, almost beyond question or criticism. A reason of state. Since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, who might be credited with initiating this reverence, even putting ‘cultivating a scientific temper’ in the directive principles of our Constitution.
It hardly matters if modern science is not well-understood by netas let alone common Indians. Nor does it matter that scientific establishments stand out in splendid isolation from their surroundings, shielded from the mess and chaos of India. High walls, formidable barricades, security posts, and complicated identity checks ensure that the ‘unwashed’ masses have no entrée into their hallowed premises.
Outside there is dirt, disorder and distress; inside, sanitised, air-conditioned laboratories and research facilities, manned by personnel in white cloaks, often with gloves and masks. What does it matter if these same scientists do a Ganesh puja or break a coconut before pressing a button to launch a rocket? Or pray to benign and beneficent deities like Tirupati Balaji for the success of a mission? Indian masses hardly care for such conundrums if not contradictions.
To them, as Indian politicians have realised, success in fields such as high tech, especially space, is a matter of national pride. Not entirely unlike success in beauty pageants or sports. But success in science and technology works much better since high-tech, rather than beauty or brawn, actually runs and rules the modern world.
That is why the unfortunate, star-crossed prime minster and erstwhile our neighbourly rival, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, said this of himself and his countrymen: “We will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own [atom bomb]… We have no other choice!” Pakistan, we might be pleased to note, has almost been reduced to eating grass, but is still far from coming close to Chandrayaan-2’s achievement, even if the latter didn’t make a moon-landing.
But Modi, it must be underscored, has gone farther than all his predecessors in not just juicing ISRO’s space missions but also managing the narrative around them. In Chandrayaan-2, he has found an unexpected ally in ISRO chief K. Sivan. The latter is the classic illustration of a disadvantaged rural boy rising to the heights of fame and success to become not just a national hero but the poster boy of India’s science and technology establishment. Sivan, the humble, self-made technologist symbolises the Indian dream almost as much as Narendra Modi, a former tea seller now stellar prime minister.
When Sivan breaks down in Modi’s arms, it is truly a photo-op that can launch a thousand rockets if not a thousand ships. The PM patting Sivan on his back, embracing him, literally wiping away his tears sent a message possibly more powerful than Chandrayaan-2’s soft landing on the moon, which was not to be.
Narendra Modi told the nation that failures will not deter us from our ambitions. Setbacks will not stop us from pursuing our goals. No matter what the odds, India will power its way to achieve its legitimate goals and take our destined place in the world.
Just so that the message was driven home, the speech that Modi gave in both Hindi and English in his own inimitable style spoke not only of India’s civilisational journey, but even more of the romance of science. The moon, often the object of poetry and passion, became in Modi’s speech a symbol of India’s tryst with science. Embracing the moon represented India’s dream of becoming a space power. What was noteworthy was the PM’s unequivocal endorsement of science as humanity’s best bet in its search for knowledge. There is no substitute for science; no amount of expenditure on science is thus wasted. So, science is as much the torchbearer of Hindutva as it was of Nehruvian secularism. Some things don’t change.
Modi, regardless of who his speechwriters are, shows a comprehensive grasp of the importance of managing and massaging the narrative. No Indian leader in the last 50 years has shown anything close to his prowess and strategic command in this regard.
Here it must also be admitted that the so-called failure of Chandrayaan-2 is not as much of a failure as some might think. The orbiter is still in space with reportedly 95 per cent of the intended experimental data and information still transmittable. Moreover, other nations have also suffered several failures and setbacks before they could land a craft on the moon.
India, as the newest entrant to the club, will be granted its own quota of such misfirings and aborted attempts. But think of how much has been gained by Modi’s turning defeat into victory. It would be so wonderful for India if he can manage the global media perceptions as well as he does the Indian, especially when it comes to more contentious matters such as the clampdown in Kashmir.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His views are personal. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe.