In the Hindi heartland, Indians are voting for Modi. Photo: PTI File

Modi's satellite 'strike' may have missed electoral target

By now it must have become evident that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an excellent strategy to attract attention before a crucial election.

The template of this stratagem is this. A) Make a big bang announcement. B) Leave out its details. C) Go to town calling it an unprecedented decision. D) Dazzle the voter with high-voltage propaganda and unsubstantiated leaks through the party machinery and friendly media. E) Silence everyone who question the decision by calling them anti-national, anti- security forces or anti-scientists. F) By the time people understand the nuances of the decision, while a haze surrounds the announcement, reap an electoral windfall. G) Move on to something bigger.

The PM’s announcement on Wednesday (March 27) that India has acquired the capability to shoot down satellites is yet another manifestation of his trademark strategy. He is obviously emboldened by the electoral success of his earlier decisions like demonetisation, surgical strikes and the air raid on Balakot, which were announced with great bombast, with sketchy details on the eve of crucial polls.

India joins the elite club

The PM announced that India successfully tested its ability to shoot down satellites in low earth orbit, and, thus, became part of an elite club of four countries —Russia, China and the US are the other three—  that have this strategic ability. On cue, his party spokespersons started thumping their chests, calling Modi the guardian of our skies and chanting the familiar slogan of ‘Modi hai to sambhav hai (Modi makes it possible).’

If you cut out the flab and the jargon, Modi’s announcement means India destroyed one of its own out of service satellite in the space. India’s anti-satellite mission has been in the works for at least a decade now. In 2012, India Today magazine had quoted Defence Research and Development Organisation chief Vijay Saraswat as saying, “Today we have developed all the building blocks for an ant-satellite capability.”

In the same interview, Saraswat said, India will not test this capability through the destruction of a satellite. Such a test risked showering lethal debris in space that could damage existing satellites. Instead, India’s capability would be fine-tuned through simulated electronic tests.

So, what exactly is Modi’s achievement, except a deviation from the earlier decision to not test the capability because of the risk to existing satellites? It is a question Modi and his team would not answer, till at least the time election campaign is on. This was evident in Arun Jaitley’s press conference soon after the test where he blasted the previous governments for “not allowing DRDO to test the capability” and resorted to the familiar claim that only Modi can do it and India is safe in the hands of a strong PM.

Attempt to alter the national discourse

What exactly was the need to test this strategic weapon that India has had for almost seven years in the middle of an election? What was the hurry to rush to the nation and announce a decision that many other governments would have considered sensitive? And, what happened to the previous decision to just simulate the tests?

It is apparent that the BJP is eager to keep the election discourse centred around ‘nationalism.’ It is keen to sell itself and the PM as true patriots who have the guts to take hard decision in the interest of the nation. The unprecedented decision to announce a strategic “achievement” in the middle of an election is primarily aimed at taking this narrative forward.

In a way, this also reveals the confusion within the BJP about its ability to win the election. Till a few weeks ago, poll pundits and media were certain that India’s retaliatory strikes on Balakot had decisively swung the election towards the BJP. That the PM has injected another dose of ‘nationalism’ into the election shows the BJP wants to do more to retain focus on national security.

One of the triggers for the unprecedented announcements could be Rahul Gandhi’s promise of ₹72,000 per annum to India’s poorest. The traction that his promised dole got in the media, the buzz around it among voters and its ability to pull the narrative towards issues like poverty alleviation, unemployment may have forced the BJP to counter with its nationalism card. Gandhi’s announcement, incidentally, has an imprint of the BJP template of making a “dhamaka” (big bang, as Gandhi said), leave out the details and confuse the electorate.

Not enough applause

The BJP—and the PM—are entitled to make big bang announcements with sketchy details in a poll battle. But, the problem with the strategy of using high-decibel decisions to attract attention is that every time the public expects something more bigger and dramatic from the PM—like an addict expecting a bigger and bigger hit of a drug. And, if it doesn’t live up to their expectations, they feel let down.

The muted response to the latest announcement—notice the lack of enthusiasm on social media and excitement in TV newsrooms— shows the PM may have overdone his act. His latest strike may have hit a satellite but missed the intended target.

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