Sunday, November 02, 2008

India Over The Moon

Indian pride is rising almost as fast as the Chandrayaan-1 Moon rocket that yesterday blasted off from southern India to begin two years of lunar studies and establish India's place in the forefront of the Asian space race. The launch was greeted with patriotic enthusiasm across the country, as scientists hailed the unmanned mission as a landmark for the nation's high-technology industries, and politicians spoke of India's emerging global importance.

Few questioned the cost, despite the vast sums still needed to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty. Even the poor expressed joy at an achievement remarkable for a country that was regularly swept by famine only 60 years ago. The space operation is ostensibly about mapping the Moon's surface, looking for helium-3 and broadening India's commercial space programme. In fact, as politicians and the public understand, it is more about responding to China's first space walk last month and the unmanned probes launched by both China and Japan last year.

This has been a good week for India. Two days ago a crossing point over the line of control in Kashmir was opened for the first time to allow Indian and Pakistani lorries to carry fruit, vegetables and other exports between the two halves of the divided state that have been shut off from each other for six decades. The symbolic traffic over the Peace Bridge was agreed during talks between the Indian Prime Minister and the Pakistani President at the United Nations. It is intended to demonstrate to both countries that, despite the political turbulence in Pakistan and Indian accusations that Pakistan was responsible for the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the rapprochement between the two countries is still on track. Reopening of the trade route has been a main demand of Kashmiri separatists. It will do much to calm renewed tensions in Indian Kashmir before elections there later in the year.

Back on Earth, another Indian has just won the Man Booker Prize. Aravind Adiga, a 33-year-old Oxford-educated writer, beat another Indian shortlisted contender, Amitav Ghosh, and is the fourth Indian-born writer to win the prize since it was established in 1969. But his novel, The White Tiger, is itself a play on the competition between India and China, and takes a bitter look at the hollowness behind the boasts of “India shining” - a crass slogan that probably cost the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party the last general election. The space launch may deflect attention temporarily from the problems that Adiga chronicles, but the gap between India's vaunted democracy and the realities of daily life are pitilessly exposed, as the Government itself has found. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, won a coup in securing his cherished nuclear deal with Washington, but otherwise little has gone his way: the economy has slowed, the quarrels within his coalition have sharpened and reformers are disappointed that changes they see as essential to further development have stalled.

Nevertheless, the Moon shot underlines a point also made by the global downturn: that India, which surely deserves a permanent Security Council seat, is a power not to be ignored. For millions of Indians that point was joyously made by India's one really important achievement: victory over Australia in the second Test, with the bonus of Sachin Tendulkar racking up more runs than anyone else in Test match history.

1 comment:

Chris O said...

I was going to say "Well done India" but it's absolutely unforgivable to spend so much money on a space mission when so many people in the country are poor.

I actually find it hard to believe that those same people are happy about the rocket launch. Amazing really...