Special Report

PM Modi fires another salvo, this time in space

PM Modi fires another salvo, this time in space

The Wednesday afternoon was a bit unusual for the Indian audience as all listened to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on All India Radio and also on all private and government-owned TV channels. When the announcement of the address was made, everybody thought something like demonetisation is on cards. However, something else was in store. Modi announced the successful completion of India’s mission to destroy a low Orbit Satellite (owned by India but now defunct) through surface to missile rocket.

By doing this, India entered the prestigious club of Space Power next to only the USA, China and Russia. This is surely an achievement to be proud about for the India’s DRDO missile experts and scientists. We have all heard of China’s capabilities of blowing up satellites in our neighbourhood. India had just demonstrated that we can do the same. In defence terms, it is akin to bombing key industrial installations. Destroying satellites can disrupt an enemy nation’s communications, weather-prediction systems and many other key services that could bring the economy to a standstill.

Declamatory speech
Modi’s choice of words and body language was also interesting. He said that our scientists have “shot down” (maar giraya) a Low Earth Orbit satellite (LEO). He moved his hand emphatically at the point of saying maar giraya. He repeated the point, this time clarifying that the LEO was a pre-determined target.

There were a few other key words that framed the PM’s address: Parakram which can mean a ‘feat’ but also signifies ‘power’ and ‘strength’. Antariksh Mahashakti, which he himself translated as “Space Power”. Siddhi prapt, which means “achievement”. Shaktishaali meaning “powerful”. These words, repeated several times throughout the 10-minute speech, set up an image of a nation defined by strength, power and achievement.

The PM also set-up for us how we should feel about Mission Shakti, as the A-SAT missile test had been named. Har Hindustani ke liye issey bade garv ka pal nahin ho sakta hai (For Indians, there can be no prouder moment). The PM’s speech was followed immediately by a barrage of tweets by ministers and BJP supporters. Chowkidar Ravi Shankar Prasad pointed to the “visionary & bold leadership” of the PM. #MissionShakti, #SpacePower, #PMAddressToNation and #PMModi began trending on Twitter.

But on WhatsApp groups that I inhabit, the reaction to the speech was tepid. Modi supporters were expecting something more politically useful. Anti-Modi voices were pleased that the PM hadn’t scored any major electoral points. One critic asked: Did a Prime Minister, who is bound by the Model Code of Conduct need to announce it? Couldn’t it have been done by the scientists of DRDO who made it possible? After all, the PM made no official announcement after the Balakot airstrikes and left it entirely to the Foreign Ministry babus and senior defence personnel.

The bigger question is what was the PM trying to achieve? In terms of electoral dividends, the address to the nation was an anti-climax. It raised expectations but delivered very little. If it was intended to seize the agenda back from Rahul Gandhi’s Nyay (Justice), it was unlikely to work in rural India. Even the urban voter, whose opinion polls show more care about jobs and prices, are not likely to be greatly moved by satellites being shot in outer space.

Enterprising social media
If it works at all, it will work in the form of memes and videos. It will work in that crucial battleground called WhatsApp. Don’t be surprised if enterprising social media soldiers come up with video clips of Modi’s address to the nation interspersed with dramatic footage from science-fiction movies of satellites being blown up in space.

The PM’s key words — parakram, shaktishali, garv, siddhi and space-power — will all work perfectly when they are set to rousing music. That’s the political message that could work on the ground, a message that projects Modi as a powerful statesman on the global stage. In the absence of any real achievements on the economic front, the BJP is depending heavily on pushing its achievements in the sphere of defence and national security.

Opinion polls suggest that these motifs do work in the Hindi belt. Today’s address to the nation could well have been timed to feed into that political theme. The question, now, is that with the first phase of the voting just a ten-day ahead, what would be the new narrative of the Prime Minister and in turn, the BJP to attract the voters decisively?

With its moderate success in the diplomatic area and failure to bring the black money back to India, what is now needed, and needed urgently, is an eye-wash that would further tame the already demoralised Opposition, particularly Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Vadra Gandhi.

Bharat Kumar Raut is a political analyst and former Member of Parliament (RS).


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