India on Wednesday demonstrated the capability to shoot down satellites in space using a highly accurate missile launched from Wheeler Island, off the coast of Odisha. India’s indigenous missile development programme, started in 1983 under Indira Gandhi and built up through trying times and technological sanctions by successive governments and generations of dedicated scientists, has given the nation a set of highly accurate missiles and deterrence capability against enemies with similar capabilities. Only three other nations – the US, Russia and China – have demonstrated anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, although others such as Britain, France and Israel almost certainly have the capability, too. The DRDO scientists deserve to be congratulated. But did it call for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to go on television and address the nation while the election code of conduct is in operation? Clearly, this was political theatre designed to claim credit for the ASAT test and pose as a strong leader. It fooled no one but has opened India to the charge that its politicians take critical national security decisions -- especially such an important one as India moving away from its longstanding position that space should not be militarised – merely for reasons of domestic politics.
Wednesday’s announcement was not about a national security emergency that required the prime minister to go on air. We are not at war with anyone nor was there any immediate national security situation that the prime minister had to talk to the nation about. Modi clearly violated the model of conduct. The opposition is right in criticising the prime minister on this count, as it is right in pointing out that development of India’s military capabilities did not begin with Modi in 2014 but has taken years and decades to achieve. It remains to be seen what view the Election Commission will take and if it will act to restore confidence in the authority of the code of conduct and the institution itself.
Modi’s and BJP’s desperation is showing. The bid to grab airtime by the prime minister and his ministers, that too to make spurious claims about strong leadership as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley did, only goes to show how nervous the BJP is. Perhaps the ruling party has been rattled after Rahul Gandhi matched Modi in economic populism with his income guarantee announcement. The theatre surrounding the prime minister’s announcement sent the entire nation into a tizzy, worrying what national calamity had befallen us. But it also showed how the nation receives announcements by Modi these days – with a great degree of scepticism and disbelief. One joke going around social media was, “Modi to go on TV. Should we head for bunkers or ATMs?”