Returns of moon project definite, but deferred

It is not merely success that tests the nation’s resolve. How a nation copes with disappointments is an equal measure.

In the early hours of last Saturday, India was confronted with the disappointing news of the inability of the Chandrayaan-2 to complete the final stage of its difficult mission.

There was sadness all around but, fortunately, there was no dejection. It was widely recognised that our scientists had come within striking distance of achieving what earlier was thought to be a pipe dream.

I was a schoolboy in 1969 when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. It was a moment of high excitement for the whole of mankind. It was also a great triumph for the US, then in the midst of a bitter Cold War with a rival system of social organisation based in the erstwhile Soviet Union.

For the US the landing on the moon was also a political achievement and the country was justified in gloating over it. At that time, India was a struggling country caught up in political turmoil and crippling shortages.

We were leading what some people mocked as a “ship-to-mouth” existence. In our wildest dream we never thought that there would come a time when we would be monitoring an Indian mission to the moon.

That we did so on Saturday is an indication of how much the country has progressed in the past four decades. More important, it was a small indication of how much self-confidence now existed within India.

Of course there will be those who will claim that India had overreached itself and that the Chandrayaan mishap was a reality check. They will, like an offensive cartoon in an American newspaper some years ago, argue that our priorities are different and that we should be devoting all our energies in ensuring that every Indian enjoys a decent standard of living. Loftier projects were not for a ‘Third World’ country such as India.

They are only half right. Looking at the quality of life is no doubt a national priority but does that mean the country turns its back on all other initiatives whose real returns will accrue not now but to a future generation?

I heard the news of Chandrayaan in Mongolia. I had travelled to this country of Genghis Khan, along with some others, on a mission that some people would no doubt call an exercise in vanity.

It was a civilisational dialogue between representatives of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths on conflict avoidance (to be distinguished from conflict resolution) and environmental protection. It was part of an initiative launched five years ago by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan’s Shinzo Abe to bring the Indic faiths together.

The dialogue is unlikely to fetch instant returns. Buddhism was one of India’s earliest soft power exports and outlived the decline of the faith in its home turf.

The manner in which Buddhism has evolved in the countries of south-east and Central Asia varies, but all these countries have an emotional bond with the land of the Buddha. To reforge those links in the modern context and at the same time evolve an alternative civilisational narrative is a long term and daunting project.

Among other things it involves Indians evolving a mindset that is open to reaching out with a measure of self-clarity. It also involves developing a capacity for independent thinking, a process that goes beyond meekly accepting the intellectual handouts from the West.

This is not a project that will yield instant returns. There will be failures and many disappointments on the way. There will be the sceptics who will insist that the priorities are all wrong.

Others will claim that evolving an alternative narrative is too vague a project for diplomacy. The comparisons with the Chandrayaan project are obvious.

I think there are times we should look to the long term. We are at a historical stage in our development when we are ready to take that plunge. Disappointments are inevitable but they are also a test of our national resilience.

The space programme must continue with greater determination and so must our other outreaches. Mercifully, we now have a Prime Minister who is not afraid to think big.

Our real problem is with the internal prophets of negativism who don’t believe India is destined for bigger things. I think it is a misfortune that some of them also happen to be Indians.

Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.

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