With a Chest-Thumping Speech on ASAT Test, Narendra Modi Has Shown He Is Nervous

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the prime minister's speech came shortly after Rahul Gandhi announced Congress's NYAY promise.

Almost every Indian has vivid memories of standing in nervous excitement a short distance away from a Diwali ‘atom bomb’, with hands on their ears, watching the sparking fuse intently while it ignites the cracker and goes boom. Quite often, after a long wait, much after the glow of the fuse has ceased, the bravest one, after a closer look, would declare in disgust: Phus pataka!

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted at 11:23 am that he would address the nation “with an important message”, imaginations ran amok during the almost hour-long window of time before he appeared on TV screens wearing a green jacket. Someone said his address related to a national security matter, while others asserted he was sure to announce that either Masood Azhar or Dawood Ibrahim, or even both, had been killed.

Others speculated if he had ordered another military offensive against Pakistan and if this would impact the election schedule – some even dug out rules which permitted the Election Commission of India to postpone the remaining phases of polls after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination a day after voting in 211 seats.

Still others, carrying the traumatic recollection of standing endlessly in post-demonetisation queues, discreetly checked the number of Rs 2,000 currency notes tucked away for medical or other emergencies. Although there was wide variety in the nature of conjectures regarding the content of Modi’s address, there was unanimity over its momentous or significant nature.

But within moments of Modi’s broadcast, it was evident that this was a damp squib or, as several said sarcastically, it was yet another case of khoda pahar chuhiya nikli, implying that Modi was making a mountain of a molehill.

Also read: Having Tested Its ASAT Capability, India Should Help Shape Global Space Norms

Clearly, while India attaining capability to destroy a satellite in orbit using a missile is indeed a significant landmark in India’s space and military prowess, it did not necessitate Modi personally thumping his chest after keeping almost the entire nation on tenterhooks for close to an hour. The announcement could have been made as a matter of routine and it have sufficed if the prime minister limited himself to a congratulatory statement.

Moreover, it was reported as early as 2012, immediately after the successful launch of Agni V missile, that India had acquired anti-satellite capability and it now depended on the government giving a go-ahead to develop such a system.

While Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party are already infusing their election campaign with the argument that the prime minister alone had the political and strategic chutzpah to give a green signal to the DRDO, the reason for the previous government not going ahead with the programme was that India was not “interested in weaponising space” because it was a “peace-loving nation”.

Modi certainly does not want the shackles of peace to prevent his branding as a muscular and decisive leader for whom the “nation comes first.” This policy reversal is paradoxical for a government which showcases Mahatma Gandhi in the motif of its watershed programme. The government has claimed that it “has no intention of entering into an arms race in outer space” and that the test “is not directed against any country”. However, the reasons provided for having tested A-SAT at this juncture are not adequate. Moreover, with the BJP being so distinctly centred around the claimed threat from Pakistan, such disclaimers carry little weight.

The moot point however is why did the A-SAT capacity, available through the entire length of his tenure, have to be tested and announced in the middle of elections when the model code of conduct is in place?

Ostensibly, the reason detailed in the government statement on the anti-satellite missile test, from the Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Island launch complex, is that there was necessity to verify India’s capability to safeguard its space assets. Secondly, “the tests were done now” because these were possible only after “we had acquired the required degree of confidence to ensure its success”.

Furthermore, the decision “reflects the intention of the government to enhance India’s national security”. One may add that the go-ahead was given in the middle of elections to augment BJP’s claim of being sole protector of national security, in contrast to opposition parties, painted by Modi as partners of Pakistan.

The question, however, is why Modi made such a big event of a feat, the announcement of which would normally have been left to the DRDO and other government officials. It is evident in the manner in which Modi presented the accomplishment that he is worried about the feedback he is receiving regarding the mood of the electorate.

The need to bolster post-Balakot nationalistic fervour stems from a realisation that the script is not shaping up the way he envisioned it, that the memory of the air trikes and the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan has faded. Obviously, in such a scenario, Modi has to claim once again as being the only leader who is “committed to ensuring the country’s national security interests and is alert to threats from emerging technologies”. Without a doubt, a desperation was palpable in his address, both in terms of choice of words and voice modulation.

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One cannot avoid noting that this address was made less than 48 hours after the Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, promised to implement the NYAY scheme. This suggests that Modi understands that the Congress was beginning to seize the initiative by forcing ‘Aay Pe Charcha’ as against the Modi-Shah bouquet of pre-election jumlas. This is thereby an attempt on Modi’s part to bolster people’s sagging interest in the nationalistic narrative.

From the time Modi embarked on milking the airstrikes against the terrorist facility in Balakot, a section within the Sangh parivar has expressed concern over whether the acceptability of this approach in non-Hindi speaking states and if the so-called josh or enthusiasm could be sustained. It is evident that this campaign is possibly reaching the end of its course, and thus the desperation of Modi to somehow boost it.

The address to the nation has revealed a huge weakness in Modi’s armoury and it is now up to the opposition to push through a campaign based on livelihood concerns and well-being of the people as against a false narrative of sacrificing personal necessities for the sake of the nation.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.