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Shyam Saran writes: At par with China, better than Russia — how Chandrayaan-3 may be seen in the world

The suspense is over. India is celebrating the remarkable success of Chandrayaan-3, which landed on the Moon’s surface on the designated day, time and location. One of the markers of global leadership is technological advancement. After the US, Russia and China, India is now only the fourth country to have achieved this landmark. Chandrayaan-3 landed at the southern pole of the Moon and India is the only spacefaring nation to have selected a particularly challenging and little understood location for exploration. Scientists say that it is only the polar regions which still carry the original geology of the Moon — most of its surface having been overlaid with the debris of large and small asteroids which have been bombarding the Moon through millennia and accumulating, layer after layer. The experiments which the Moon rover will be carrying out over this space, including looking for sub-soil water, will bring new knowledge about our closest celestial neighbour. This will also help our understanding of the history and make-up of our own fragile planet.

This great success in space exploration comes, coincidentally, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit. Chandrayaan-3’s success will boost India’s profile and standing among its BRICS partners and enhance the influence of the BRICS itself as a grouping of economically and technologically capable states who are now peers among the constituency of developing countries.

Chandrayaan-3 succeeded where a Russian lunar landing craft – Luna-25 — failed and crashed a few days earlier. It may have been a coincidence that Russia, already a seasoned space-faring nation, launched its Moon landing project virtually days after India did. But Russian failure and Indian success will be assessed side by side. Russia’s failure is already being seen as a symptom of its decline and inability, in terms of resources, to maintain its status as an advanced space power. Space exploration is a high-risk and expensive pursuit and India itself suffered disappointment when its Chandrayaan-2 also crashed on the Moon’s surface in September 2019. There is no reason to believe that Russia will not overcome this setback and pick up the pieces again. But perceptions matter. Chandrayaan-3 reinforces the international perception of India as a rising power and that of Russia as a declining power. If Russia undertook this project to counter the notion that it was no longer in the front ranks of technologically advanced countries, that the Ukraine War had not in any way dented that position, it failed. The political and psychological setback is obvious from the very limited coverage that the failed Moon mission received in the Russian media.

China has always looked down upon India as being out of its league as a global economic and technological power. It sees India as pretending to be a leading power without having the economic and technological capabilities to back it up with. India’s earlier demonstrations of scientific and technological excellence, for example, in the nuclear and space fields or in its successful IT sector, have been received with surprise. They have often been dismissed as “borrowed” from other countries. Chandrayaan-3’s outstanding achievement may be difficult to dismiss in a similar manner. Perhaps this may lead China to shed some of its arrogance and approach India as a country which must be treated with respect rather than condescension. The two countries can put their relations on an even keel only if they treat each other as equals. How China reacts to Chandrayaan-3’s success will be a pointer to whether there is a shift in China’s posture towards India after the violent clashes at the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh.

For India, Chandrayaan-3’s success is also a boost to its status as the host country for the forthcoming G20 summit. One has no doubt that in the already pervasive publicity surrounding the summit, Chandrayaan-3 will add another prominent feather to India’s cap. During the summit deliberations, India’s voice will command greater attention. Its various initiatives will be considered with respect. Whether this will be reflected in substantive outcomes remains to be seen.

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There are lessons for India and its development strategy. What Chandrayaan-3 has achieved is the result of the vision put forward by India’s early leaders that the country, though poor and developing, should create and nurture institutions of excellence pursuing the most advanced science and technology. The Atomic Energy Commission, which developed India’s nuclear programme, was set up as early as 1948 with Prime Minister Nehru as its Chairman. This reflected the high importance attached to this advanced scientific pursuit by the then political leadership.

Originally, space research was entrusted to a committee under the Department of Atomic Energy known as Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR), set up in 1961 under the well-known scientist, Vikram Sarabhai. This was later followed by the setting up of the Indian Space Research Organisation in 1972. The Indian Space Commission was set up on the pattern of the Atomic Energy Commission, also under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister. These two commissions are the pillars of India’s advanced science and technology, enjoying considerable autonomy and being well-funded. It is these early, far-sighted decisions, followed by the efforts of India’s scientists and technology workers, that have resulted in the success of India’s latest space mission.

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The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and an Honorary Fellow at CPR

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