Rakesh Sharma was the first Indian to travel to space. It happened 12 years before I was born. The story was told and retold to me several times. Each time, people fondly remembered the conversation he had had with Indira Gandhi from space, and the entire country had listened with baited breath. If you type ‘Rakesh Sharma’ on YouTube, his conversation with Indira Gandhi is the first video that pops up, watched over eight hundred and sixty thousand times.
Did anyone question why he spoke to Indira Gandhi from space, and not a scientist or engineer? Sure, she was the Prime Minister of India. And as is typical of the family, she was there on this grand occasion, hogging the limelight, making it all about herself.
But I can hardly blame her. Of course, there has been a concerted attempt by the family to carve out a legacy, a place for itself in the Indian psyche. India’s flagship stadium is called Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, our so-called gateway to the world is called Indira Gandhi International Airport, Connaught Place is now called Rajiv Chowk. Every big city and little town in India have colonies named after these people, streets, stadiums, airports, markets, hospitals, grounds and parks too. Their statues adorn every corner of the country, even the remotest villages. We are told that these messiahs gave us imbeciles our scientific temperament, that they introduced us imbeciles to computers. But I can hardly blame Indira Gandhi for hogging the limelight when an Indian went to space for the first time. Because she was running the country, she represented India internationally, and she controlled the narrative domestically. Irrespective of the intention, there was no better way to highlight the significance of what India had achieved.
Today, questions are being raised about why Prime Minister Modi made the ASAT test announcement instead of a scientist. Some people say the government should have simply put out a press release regarding the ASAT test. If those offering these suggestions haven’t quite grasped the significance of this mission, how it has changed India’s stature globally, and how such moves shake up the international order, one can forgive them. One can ask them to look back, to read up. The irony though is that people raising these questions put food on the table working as cheerleaders of one family, overcompensating for the family’s multiple failures, and showering the family with undue credit on every turn. For them just like for us, Rakesh Sharma’s conversation with Indira Gandhi is an iconic moment of modern India’s history. But here, a press release would have done the trick, because the parameter they use to evaluate anything is not its inherent significance but their political preference.
surely this should have been a press release?
— Sidharth Bhatia (@bombaywallah) March 27, 2019
Why didnt we get to see our fantastic scientists addressing the nation. Is it because….
1. They are meant to be neither seen nor heard
2. The action signalled a policy shift (yes) – in which case is that kosher 2 weeks before polls
3. They arent Netas?#MissionShakti
— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) March 27, 2019
Another question that was raised about the ASAT mission: why now? Why during election season, especially after the model code of conduct kicked in? Here are some counter questions to the geniuses who came up with these zingers. Do you think Pakistan will wait for us to finish the elections before they send the next batch of terrorists over? Do you think China will wait for us to elect a new government before planning the next illegal excursion? Pray tell us geniuses, why do you think we don’t send our military on leave when the model code of conduct kicks in, and simply ask them to report for duty after the new government is sworn in? How can any program regarding our preparedness to deal with external threats be compromised because we have an election to conduct?
This was of course much before my time, but I’m sure the bards in the family’s durbar will remember the domestic challenges Indira Gandhi faced when the tests for the Pokhran 1 were conducted. Of course, nobody termed it a political gimmick. Most people were happy for India. And the rest, those who look at these achievements through a political prism, were part of the establishment.
Did Mrs Indira Gandhi conduct a nuclear test (Pokhran 1) in 1974 to distract public attention from:
Gujarat Navnirman Andolan?
Bihar JP students movement?
Crippling Railway strike?
30% + food inflation?
Huge spurt in oil prices?
Allahabad HC case not going well?#MissionShakti
— Kanchan Gupta (@KanchanGupta) March 27, 2019
The point I’m trying to make is that there are instances when some questions are better left unasked. Unless you want to look like a colossal idiot.