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HomeOpinionBeing IndianHugs, pursuit of science, speech: How Modi turned Chandrayaan-2 failure into success

Hugs, pursuit of science, speech: How Modi turned Chandrayaan-2 failure into success

Modi’s speech after Chandrayaan-2 soft landing failure conveyed science is as much the torchbearer of Hindutva as it was of Nehruvian secularism.

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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.

Also read: Emotions run high at ISRO, Sivan in tears as Modi says, ‘India with you, best yet to come’

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.

Also read: India would have been a dump for crackpot science had Modi not Nehru been its first leader

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.

Also read: Chandrayaan-2’s Vikram lander located on the Lunar surface: ISRO chief

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.

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  1. It was nice on Mr Modi’s part to hug and pep up the spirits of a dejected Mr Sivan. But I’m hugely perplexed by one observation : when Mr Sivan first informed Mr Modi about the news, the latter was wearing a dark greyish jacket. When he is seen consoling Mr Sivan with a hug, Mr Modi is wearing a brown and orange chequered jacket!! Honestly, can anyone please explain this? Did CONSIDERABLE AMOUNT OF TIME pass between the two shoots, and the second one was arranged as some sort of an image-building effort for the PM or a damage control one?

    Nothing wrong with it, but the way Mr Sivan got emotional during the hug sequence, it tells me a totally different thing : that, the PM was hugely upset when the news of Vikram’s failure was first told to him, which shook up the ISRO chief a great deal, and then the hug event was organized, by which time the PM had changed into a new jacket on the same premises during the same evening, apparently preparing to go for his next stop. Whatever, but I surely found it perplexing.

    • “But I’m hugely perplexed by one observation : when Mr Sivan first informed Mr Modi about the news, the latter was wearing a dark greyish jacket. When he is seen consoling Mr Sivan with a hug, Mr Modi is wearing a brown and orange chequered jacket!! Honestly, can anyone please explain this? Did CONSIDERABLE AMOUNT OF TIME”

      You are talking about two different days/timings. Mr Sivan informed PM right after contact was lost, when he was sitting in the VIP viewers gallery. Hug happened in the morning when PM came back to address ISRO staff. In between he returned back to wherever Hotel/Guest House. He was NOT in the same premises during the two happenings mentioned by you

      But I don’t blame you. It was post midnight so you might have been in semi sleep. mode. might have missed the entire event.

      Image building. LOL

  2. Something is seriously wrong with you Mr Gupta. This was by any standards a great achievement for Indian space program notwithstanding the failure of soft landing. The mission is significantly larger than just landing the craft on moon’s surface. Only a complete ignoramus would characterize this as a complete failure that we should all mourn. This betrays complete lack of space exploration history of any country on the planet , not just India. On top of that you make it a political issues where none exists. Any prime minister worth his salt has to encourage the team and the country. A 100 million children were probably excited and watching the landing. many of them have the sense to say on TV, that success takes patience and tries. And a curmudgeon like you thinks we should all mourn.

  3. Modi was out there to divert attention from the core issues and when the mission failed ,he enacted the hugging drama to realise the goal.If he genuine he would have addressed a press conference to talk to the nation

  4. Kindly proof read your article before posting it hastily. It’s ISRO not IRSO , there in the very second line of ART.

  5. Modi and Sivan – two underprivileged men who reached the top with nothing but their hard work. They are an inspiration to all youngsters.

  6. The whole article is not about ISRO’s success or failure, but how much of political party getting mileage. Also question anything and everything what a politician does, be it morale boosting hug or show solidarity in supporting a mission. The authors always look at where is politician is trying to maximize as much as journalists do the same. The Tom and Jerry chase between politicians and journalists will continue as one need the other. What is disgusting off late is to bring Kashmir and what international media think about India in every wrte up and comment as if India is surving only because of international media. Without vomiting these two, nothing goes from their brain.

  7. Surprising a comment under moderation vanished as my mild critic was not liked by The Print. Understandable after all you don’t want to get into trouble

  8. The write up was more like a political cover than anything about the Chandrayaan mission. Wherever possible take maximum political mileage, this is what most of our politicians as well as journalists are doing now a days
    It’s a pity where we are heading
    Every true citizen is proud on our achievements in science and technology, the journey of ISRO and other institutions dates back to since our independence so don’t try to undermine what we have achieved earlier days.
    Like Mr. K. Sivan, Dr. APJ also belongs to a poor family who’s considered as missile man of Indu.

  9. Yes, he used emotional reaction of Dr Sivan to hog limelight. Any PM would have reacted the same. No one will simply walk away without motivating.

  10. What is saddening in this stance emanating from an instutution like the Indian Institute of Advanced Study is that everything revolves around a speech. But one does not go beyond, we make brief allusions to the 1st PM of the Republic, more or less forced ?, and somewhere there is an attempt to recover all that has been done in India since the beginning of his space program. Successes and failures belong above all to the scientific community. Politics when it carries out responsibilities may be a visionary and instill a particular dimension to this or that public policy. This was the case of the 1st PM of the country. Science can not be monopolized by an ideology. In the past we have seen what happened when science relayed an ideology. In the contemporary world and now, there are sorcerer-apprentices who seem to want to follow this pattern. We must think that reason and wisdom will avoid this backtracking. Finally, the last sentence of the article devoted to the delicate question of Kashmir shows the bias of this article and it shows that we are affected by the disease of appearance. We want to appear, but not to be. It is true that it is more difficult. But is not that what makes the DNA of India and its people?

  11. One cannot – meaning absolutely no disrespect – now talk of the Indian and the global media in the same breath.

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