First, let’s set the record straight. As so compellingly argued by a friend in a recent article, the historic Chandrayaan-3 accomplishment is the culmination of the Nehruvian science and technology vision. The nurturing of the scientific temper, the creation of the iconic Indian Institutes of Technology, the induction of titans like Homi J. Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai to spearhead the space project, the setting up of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) are irrefutable affirmations that Nehru was the founder and architect of India’s space and atomic research programme.
Predictably, this regime has sought to make light of his role with the most outlandish arguments. The Donald Trump among TV anchors – Arnab Goswami – mockingly stated (backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson’s approving cackle) that crediting Nehru for our phenomenal outer space achievements was akin to acclaiming Abraham Lincoln for Neil Armstrong’s moon walk. To parody Dryden, “The rest to some faint meaning make pretence, but AG never deviates into sense.”
In happier times when we were optimistic about our democracy and freedom, I would have roared with laughter at the absurd sight that the world witnessed at the precise point when Chandrayaan-3 was making the stunning soft landing on the moon on August 23, a red-letter day for a joyous nation. Instead, what I saw filled me with resentment and rage. Living as we are in the worst of times under a repressive regime, we have forgotten how to laugh or even to recognise foolishness. The ridiculous behaviour of a political leader is no longer seen for what it is – stupidity that provokes derisive laughter – but, as happened in the case in point, is viewed with almost religious adoration by zillions of bhakts, while the naysayers choke with impotent fury, like I did.
I refer to the vulgar juxtaposition of the prime minister’s virtual visage basking in reflected glory framed alongside Chandrayaan-3 as it landed on the moon. This may be apocryphal, but a friend swears he heard one of the televising crew yell: “Isko kyon? Scientists ko dikhao (Why him? Let’s see the scientists).” It was farcical to see the preening showman waving a minuscule flag in celebration of an astonishing achievement, usurping the limelight that rightfully belonged to the scientists. After the heartbreak of Chandrayaan-2, they deserved to be the cynosure of all eyes but that’s asking for the moon in a country where cult worship has eclipsed even the moon landing.
But the travesty did not end there. On his return from South Africa three days after the moon landing, the prime minister put up a show for the nation at Delhi airport, shedding tears in an emotional outburst that was delayed for the benefit of his countrymen. He expressed his gratitude to the ISRO scientists, flew down to Bengaluru to meet them – the lead artiste meeting up with his facilitators as the television cameras whirred. It was a command performance where he stole the thunder from Chandrayaan and the scientists. He did what he did with the singular objective of boosting his own image as one who leads from the front, the inspirational leader behind the moon venture.
He is not the only political leader who has ridden piggyback on the achievements of his fellow citizens. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and an awe-struck world watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they “took the giant leap for mankind” on the lunar orb. Within minutes, President Richard Nixon, whose contribution to the Apollo mission’s success was negligible, made a split-screen appearance with a live feed from the moon, and chatted with the astronauts.
Determined to use the lunar landing to boost his own reputation, Nixon even had his signature (along with those of the astronauts) on the plaque affixed on the lunar module which had engraved on it the memorable never to be forgotten message: “We came in peace for all mankind.” (Contrast this with the sectarian, religion-tainted term – ‘Shiv Shakti Point’ – approved by this regime for the spot on the moon’s south pole where Chandrayaan-3 made its historical landing.) But the US media, unlike their counterparts back home, ensured that Americans never forgot that the Apollo 11 mission was set in motion by John F. Kennedy and brought to fruition by Lyndon B. Johnson. Nobody was fooled by Nixon’s attempt to hog the credit for the success of the Apollo mission. But here, the cult leader has stolen the thunder, with speculation rife that the Chandrayaan-3 success has considerably boosted his prospects for the 2024 election.
The irony is that while the prime minister poses as a tech-savvy leader, every now and then the façade slips, revealing a hardened Hindu nationalist who has muddled up myth with science. He has publicly affirmed that cosmetic surgery and reproductive genetics were practised in ancient India, and endorsed a book that says Lord Ram flew the first aeroplane. His unscientific simple-mindedness became public knowledge when he suggested that clouds would prevent Pakistani radars from detecting Indian fighter jets during the Balakot air strike. Apart from its sheer absurdity, his statement was made with the clear intent of taking credit for strategising the successful air strike, but it boomeranged.
Much more troubling is his regime’s tampering with the study of science at the school level, reflected in the recent retrograde move by the NCERT to remove the periodic table, Darwin’s theory, electromagnetism and the sustainable use of natural resources from school textbooks. In the inhospitable environment of Hindutva-fuelled mythical science, one wonders if we will be able to sustain the level of excellence that saw us to the moon.
Prime Minister Modi has made a habit of breaking down in public. In 2015, he choked up when talking about his mother to Mark Zuckerberg in a town hall discussion and brought up the scarcely credible story of his mother washing utensils at the homes of his neighbours to raise him. Following the demonetisation disaster in 2016, he used emotional blackmail, tear ducts leaking as he pleaded with his countrymen for 50 days to set matters right, irrelevantly claiming to be a martyr: “I’m not here for the kursi. I left my home, family, everything for the country”; also alluding darkly to powers who “will not let me live.”
Ultimately, it was about himself. Even an inconsequential non-event like the farewell to Ghulam Nabi Azad in 2021 on completion of his tenure as Rajya Sabha member provoked a display of tear-filled histrionics from the prime minister, the self-indulgent sentimentalist nonpareil! But the searing human suffering in Manipur and Nuh has left him unmoved.
His emotional outbursts are clearly well thought-out, a strategy to win sympathy and the hearts of people with a show of his sensitivity, caring and sheer humaneness. Whenever confronted by one of his sentimental moments, I am reminded of James Baldwin’s warning about such fake heart-on-sleeve characters:
“Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty…the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray… his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mark of cruelty.”
Baldwin has helped us understand our man and his play acting. Modi’s entire career is a validation of Baldwin’s forensic diagnosis.
We know in our bones that a good leader takes responsibility for failures and gives credit to others for success, but that’s not our Supreme Leader’s style. He is all over the map in good times, hosting medal-winning Olympic athletes or inaugurating every project, bar none or elbowing out scientists. But in bad times, he either ducks or maintains an Olympian silence, as he did during the second COVID-19 wave, the prolonged trauma following demonetisation, the shameful Brij Bhushan saga, and continues to do regarding Manipur, Nuh, the Adani scam and the Chinese occupation of our land. And of course, he employs another ruse – blames Nehru for some of the mess we are currently in.
But what is to be done when a cult leader has his legions of followers in thrall, creating an emotional bond and undying faith that are steadfast even when their leader’s actions harm them grievously? What can anybody do about the irrational, blind bhakti of a leader intent on splitting up Bharat and India to hold on to power?
The writer is a former civil servant. The views are personal.