India’s space odyssey must go on with zeal

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India’s space odyssey must go on with zeal

Sunday, 08 September 2019 | Swapan Dasgupta

It is not merely success that tests the national resolve. How a nation copes with disappointments is an equal measure.

In the early hours of Saturday, India was confronted with the disappointing news of the inability of the Chandrayaan mission to complete the final stage of its difficult mission. There was all round sadness but, fortunately, there was no dejection. It was widely recognised that our scientists had come within striking distance of achieving what earlier was thought to be a pipe dream.

I was a schoolboy in 1969 when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. It was a moment of high excitement for the whole of mankind. It was also a great triumph for the US, then in the midst of a bitter Cold War with a rival system of social organisation based in the erstwhile Soviet Union. For the US the landing on the moon was also a political achievement and the country was justified in gloating over it. At that time, India was a struggling country caught up in political turmoil and crippling shortages. In our wildest dream we never thought that there would come a time when we would be monitoring an Indian mission to the moon. That we did so on Saturday is an indication of how much the country has progressed in the past four decades.

Of course there will be those who will claim that India had overreached itself and that yesterday was a reality check. They will, like an offensive cartoon in an American newspaper some years ago, argue that our priorities are different and that we should be devoting all our energies in ensuring that every Indian enjoys a decent standard of living.

They are only half right. Looking at the quality of life is no doubt a national priority but does that mean the country turns its back on all other initiatives whose real returns will accrue not now but to a future generation?

I heard the news of Chandrayaan in Mongolia. I had travelled to this country of Genghis Khan, along with some others, on a mission that some people would no doubt call an exercise in vanity. It was a civilisational dialogue between representatives of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths on conflict avoidance (to be distinguished from conflict resolution) and environmental protection. It was part of an initiative launched five years ago by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan’s Shinzo Abe.

The dialogue is unlikely to fetch instant returns. Buddhism was one of India’s earliest soft power exports and outlived the decline of the faith in its home turf. The manner in which Buddhism has evolved in the countries of south-east and Central Asia varies, but all these countries have an emotional bond with the land of the Buddha. To reforge those links in the modern context and at the same time evolve an alternative civilisational narrative is a long term and daunting project. Among other things it involves Indians evolving a mindset that is open to reaching out with a measure of self-clarity.

This is not a project that will yield instant returns. There will be failures and many disappointments on the way. There will be the sceptics who will insist that the priorities are all wrong. Others will claim that evolving an alternative narrative is too vague a project for diplomacy. The comparisons with the Chandrayaan project are obvious.

I think there are times we should look to the long term. We are at a historical stage in our development when we are ready to take that plunge. Disappointments are inevitable but they are also a test of our national resilience. The space programme must continue with greater determination and so must our other outreach.

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