How to space out the Indian voter
It’s always nice to send a citizen into space before an election, even if in someone else’s vehicle. All people understand and are moved by the romance of space travel.
We’ll have to wait and watch, as we editorialists like to equivocate, but it does look like every time an Indian goes into space, a general election is in the offing, and the ruling party does not believe that the winds are completely favourable. This coincidence has happened twice.
Only one Indian has ever been in space—Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma—and that was in 1984, an election year. Four more have trained in Russia for a week-long orbital flight in Gaganyaan, but its launch date was pushed forward into the blue yonder by the pandemic, and it certainly won’t happen before 2025. Early this year, the US was talking in general terms about training an astronaut without referencing a project. And then, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington, President Biden’s promise to send an Indian to the International Space Station in 2024 dropped into the bag.
It’s a big fat goody-bag of takeaways in an unequal deal, and Uncle Sam is being extraordinarily munificent because he has the wildest expectations. Shortly after Modi flew out of the US, Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that the US expects a greater role for India in the South China Sea. India has not been notably successful in fending off panda kung fu in the Himalayas, and there is no reason to believe that it will have the stomach for striking aggressive postures in distant waters where it has no historical stake. Fulminating in election rallies and public events at home is one thing, but actually going up against an economically and technologically superior nation is something else altogether.
But it’s always nice to send a citizen into space before an election, even if in someone else’s vehicle. All people understand and are moved by the romance of space travel, from the average voter to Trekkies watching an oddly shaped craft “boldly go where no man has gone before”. Being first out there is all that matters. Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian cosmonaut, once told the BBC: “I was the 128th human in space. So, I didn’t really sweat about it.” But Indira Gandhi, who faced an uncertain election in 1984, probably thought that his voyage would send the voter’s pulse racing when she asked Moscow to give an Indian a berth in a Soyuz craft, to spend time in the Salyut 7 space station. The Khalistan movement had spiralled out of hand, and well before Sharma was launched into space on April 2, she had authorised a military operation. Operation Blue Star would be launched in June, but she also needed a more cheerful achievement to move the voter.
In his eight days in space, Sharma did fairly routine earth observation work on India, plus experiments in materials science. The trip is best remembered for his experiments with yoga in orbit to determine if it could help astronauts survive long periods in zero gravity. There was nothing very special about all this—almost every space mission, manned and unmanned, includes such experiments.
Perhaps Sharma did more valuable work in the years after his return, when he was a test pilot for Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd in its heyday, putting high-performance aircraft including the indigenous Tejas, through their paces.
But immediately after he returned to earth, Sharma became the showpiece act of a travelling circus and an autograph machine. He had to tour the country for speaking engagements and to meet the public and the press. He had to visit certain constituencies, patently for electoral reasons. Much later, he said that the objectives of his space mission were political rather than scientific.
That wasn’t a novelty, actually. The space race, which has brought technical capabilities to the point where only economic constraints prevent us from terraforming other planets, got up to speed because of the Cold War. Every achievement in space was read as a victory of capitalism over communism or vice versa.
When Apollo 11 put two men on the moon, the US was retaliating against the USSR, which had won all the contests that had preceded it. Moscow ended the scramble to put a living being in orbit by sending Laika to space in 1957. Yuri Gagarin followed the dog into orbit in 1961, and Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space two years later. Most significantly, a month before Laika lifted off, Sputnik 1 had loudly told the world who was the master of the universe. For three months, until its batteries ran out, it beeped cheerfully at the whole world. Its shortwave signal was picked up by ham operators everywhere, and home entertainment radios with mesh antennas could catch it too.
In America, the incessant beeping set off the ‘Sputnik crisis’, public anxiety that communist science had left the Western democracies far behind. It was especially compelling because the Russians had put a noisy object above everyone’s heads and launched it using ballistic missile technology—proof that their nuclear warheads had universal reach. The Eisenhower administration responded by streamlining space research, creating Nasa as an apex civilian space agency. Since then, space missions, missiles and deterrence have bristled in the electoral arsenals of US presidents like Ronald Reagan.
In India, the political effect of Rakesh Sharma’s spaceflight remains uncalibrated. Rajiv Gandhi swept the 1984 election, riding a sympathy wave following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, plus a pogrom unleashed by the Congress against Sikhs. But in 2024, with a little help from the Biden administration, we may learn if launching astronauts actually improves the trajectory of the ruling party in India.
Editor of The India Cable