Moon and power

Published July 19, 2023
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

LAST Friday, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched a rocket meant to land on the moon. Chandrayaan-III is supposed to land on the south pole of the moon next month.

The south pole is the less explored portion of the Earth’s satellite. Chandrayaan-I (which means moon craft in Sanskrit) was launched into space in 2008. Later, the mission was aborted, after having met most of its goals. Chandrayaan-II was also successfully launched into orbit but crashed when it tried to land on the moon.

Chandrayaan-III may also crash when it tries to accomplish the harder part of its mission and land. Luckily for the Indian space programme, there is more than a month between its launch last Friday and the verdict on its success and failure next month. This month, naturally, is the time for all sorts of nationalist self-congratulations, and indeed, most in India are participating in the exercise.

In a triumphant (if unoriginal) tableau, Indian television, social media and other broadcast mediums were taken up with victorious chest-thumping in the immediate aftermath of the launch.

The template, perhaps like all space excursions, was borrowed from the historic moon landing in which American astronaut Neil Armstrong took the first steps on Earth’s closest celestial neighbour. Everything from the announcement to the optics and aesthetics seemed to have been borrowed from the historic launch of six decades old. If it succeeds, India will become the fourth nation in the world to have successfully landed a spacecraft on the surface of the moon.

It is true that ISRO’s engineers deserve credit for carrying out the successful launch. Space programmes, including missions that involve the launch of a rocket, cost many millions of dollars and complete perfection in their execution. To have carried out such an expensive and high-visibility mission successfully in a country that is not as rich or innovative as the US deserves genuine praise and congratulations.

If anything, it reveals that engineers and scientists from India or South Asia are just as qualified to undertake complex missions as their counterparts in Western nations.

On a civilisational level, the fact that yet another country has launched a spacecraft intended to land on the moon suggests that space travel is on its way to becoming commonplace. If Chandrayaan-III manages to land on the moon smoothly then perhaps in time the same could be said about moon landings by human beings.

Space programmes, including moon missions, require huge amounts of government investment. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always supported space exploration. In this, he is very similar to other autocratic rulers, from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to others in China, Saudi Arabia and even the Gulf nations.

When a Saudi prince visited Russia some years ago, talks were held on investing and cooperating with Moscow on space exploration. This was not the first time the Saudi kingdom showed an interest in such collaboration.

The template was borrowed from the historic moon landing in which American astronaut Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon.

The reasons why autocrats like space is simple. First, because autocrats pursue the goal of concentrating power in themselves or at least mostly in themselves as it is then easier for regimes centred on them to funnel the enormous sums of money required to space programmes.

Without the endless procedures and consensus building of democratic regimes it is simply easier to get space programmes funded and fuelled. However, thus far the US, a democratic state, has been the only nation to put humans on the moon.

Interestingly, autocratic regimes do not want to be the first to do risky things but once someone else has successfully carried out the plan, they are quick to want to copy their conquest. After all, few things (in their mind) are as convincing as emblems of power as conquering what lies beyond Earth.

India has been lifting people out of poverty in the past five years (although there is some scepticism about the figures supplied by the government). Even with those numbers, over 200 million people in India remain in the throes of multi-dimensional poverty, which looks at multiple indices to measure poverty rather than only income.

The country continues to struggle with a high infant mortality rate and inadequate provision of basic services such as sanitation and clean drinking water. A democracy weakened by Modi’s routine onslaughts on an independent media, judiciary and bureaucratic appointments may have had some other ideas regarding the use of money than becoming the fourth country to do what others accomplished years ago.

At least one social media post that went viral following the launch of the rocket found the moment victorious because it provided a chance to belittle Pakistan.

This is ironic because the post included a clip in which a Pakistani politician explained why it was no longer necessary to focus on sighting the moon with the naked eye when science could predict with great accuracy the appearance of the new moon. While the intention was to shame Pakistan, the ironic result was to illustrate precisely why India’s space programme may be less about real innovation and new frontiers and more about Modi’s ego and desire for a militant Hindu nation.

Just like the new moon does not require nightly vigils and guesswork anymore, so too is the fourth country landing a spacecraft on the moon (if it does) less of a milestone than Hindutva nationalists think. If the space race was truly a race, let’s remember that fourth place does not get a medal.

Despite all of this, the rocket is in orbit now and the money has already been spent; given this, all good wishes to ISRO particularly those involved in the successful launch. Next month, India may become the fourth country in the world to have landed an exploratory mission on the moon and the scientific progress will be reason to applaud.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2023

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