Last week, India’s mission to land an unmanned vehicle on the moon failed in its objective. Some 2.1 kilometres above the lunar surface, the landing vehicle lost contact with Isro (Indian Space Research Organisation) at Bengaluru.
Never a one to miss an occasion, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi late in the night arrived at the Isro headquarters in Bengaluru to watch the landing. He would have made a speech expressing the triumphant arrival of India as a lunar power, along with the US, Russia, and China. In the event, Modi consoled the tearful scientists who were pleading with the vehicle to ‘Come back’ to their screens from the void. Modi changed his script, and said in an uncharacteristically tender speech that India was proud of Isro, and that ‘we have lost communication, but not hope.’ Perhaps he also had Kashmir in mind, where for over a month there has been a complete communication lockdown.
To me, it appeared a good thing that Isro could not land Vikram on the moon. There was a rough justice in reaching for the moon and missing it by a beep. In the hours leading to the landing time, the Indian media was awash in manic waves of pride. TV anchors had overnight turned into astro-scientists who spouted rocketry. One actually landed on the moon in his studio in a spacesuit. Men and women on the panel fumed and frothed and marvelled that the eternal enemy of Pakistan could ever think of going to war with India. Look at India. Look at Pakistan.
Then, again, look at the Moon
The Chandrayaan expedition’s burnout just 2.1km over the lunar surface threw water — an Indian commodity getting to be as rare as radio signals from the lander, and equally one that the lander would have looked for in the Moon — over the emerging, leonine face of triumphalism, shaking itself free from the tangled mane of national and religious pride. Hindutva, in other words.
India is a tissue of civilisations. From the neolithic to the glitzy Google age, there are men and women, stone hammer in one hand, and a mobile phone in the other, going about their lives not fully aware of the delusional contradictions of the Indian situation.
As a general rule of thumb, this applies to both nay and aye sayers. The former is more complicated as they believe they are the pioneers of humanity without borders if only because they are steeped in what they consider to be secular values. Mostly, they represent themselves. They are the bubble people. The aye sayers are the majority. And they, too, in varying degrees, are looking for a bubble. One much larger and stronger — if there is such a thing as a strong bubble — and roomier, so it can hold more people. The success of the BJP under Modi and Amit Shah (home minister and a close ally of the PM) is that they know pride is the breath of a strong and spacious bubble.
Almost everything India does these days is drummed up. It is as if Modi has been able to tap into some deep want of a people. Perhaps a civilisational lack. Enough of humility and inferiority, he roars. The media, for the most part, has been happy to be roaring with him. Arnab Goswami, who owns and anchors the Republic TV, has made a successful — and entertaining — business out of patriotism and pride; he champions the Modi government’s often ill-thought-out policies, and he is now pretty much the pin-up boy for most mainstream media outlets. The anchors and newscasters in these outlets vie to be like him in their hectoring and heckling, perhaps out of fear they will be seen as anti-national; or perhaps they will lose their jobs. If you are a true patriot, your chances of employment are higher than ever before.
The common man, who has much to do with neolithic values — fear of god and storms, hard work even if it is not quite smart, family and territorial values, primitive lynch justice — believes in the goodness of Modi’s motives: the PM has no family, for instance; why should he be corrupt?
Power of trust
That trust has not come for free. Just about every man who owns a bigha (a unit of land varying for no reason between 1,500 square metres to 6,600 square metres depending on which state of North India you are in) of farmland gets Rs2,000 (Dh105) directly into his account. Since most Indian families are large, there are likely many holdings, and they collectively draw a reasonable amount from the government. This is in addition to the yield they might get from the land. It is also independent of their other incomes as, say, auto-rickshaw or taxi drivers. Thousands of families have got cooking gas connection and electricity thanks to Modi. The urban bubble inhabiters beat their chests about free speech and western democratic values. These got the poor though not much. Voting for pride did. The poor blindly trust Modi. Because their lives have improved — perhaps at the expense of the public exchequer.
Chandrayaan, therefore, will never be seen as a botched mission. It is not necessary either. But Indian triumphalism errs on the delusional side. Not many poor countries have the intellect to send a rocket to the Moon, or Mars. But those countries who do, are not likely to have film actors in Bengaluru wear spacesuits and mock-explore the cratered roads in fake lunar explorations, as happened a few days ago, and which the BBC — a subject of high scorn for Goswami for its ‘biased coverage’ of Kashmir events — rather gleefully uploaded.
Increasingly, between potholes and rockets, between fatalism and gloating, India stumbles through a delusional daze. The differences in the spectrum amount to a disconnection. That Isro lost touch with the lander is a message in itself. Deciphering it will take more than the two weeks that Isro has given itself to look for signals that yet may come back to earth. India has lost its touch with reality. And it has not.
— C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India