Pavan K. Varma | Chandrayaan bickering the sign of a sterile democracy

The Asian Age.  | Pavan K Varma

Opinion, Columnists

Congress accused the BJP for hogging all the credit, ignoring the decades of collective effort that led to this momentous milestone.

A screenshot shows a representation of Chandrayaan-3's successful landing on the Moon’s surface. (PTI Photo)

It is a matter of great pride that Chandrayaan-3 was successful in making a soft landing on the south pole of the moon, a first for any country in the world, and that Aditya-L-1 aiming for the sun has also been successfully launched. But, on earth, it is a matter of deep regret that simultaneously with these soaring achievements, India’s political discourse has sunk to the bottom of the sea, a new low. 

There appears to be no issue on which our politicians can set aside differences and consensually appreciate a national achievement. On the contrary, there is unabated pettiness, an unseemly scramble for credit, name calling, and vitriolic diatribes at each other. 

The success of Chandrayaan-3 illustrates this starkly. The Congress accused the BJP for hogging all the credit, ignoring the decades of collective effort that led to this momentous milestone. The BJP attacked the Congress for devaluing this historic moment by claiming that the real credit should go, not to PM Narendra Modi, but to Jawaharlal Nehru, who in 1962 had the vision to invest in India’s space programme. The real heroes — the dedicated, brilliant and innovative scientists at Isro — were hapless victims of this unbecoming tu tu main main. 

Can our politicians never show the magnanimity, generosity of spirit, and, indeed, genuine patriotism by coming together to applaud any national achievement without partisanship and one-upmanship? After all, the success of Chandrayaan-3 was a matter of national pride, cutting across party lines. All the accusations and counter-accusations were unnecessary inventions of small minds. The BJP could well have acknowledged the contributions of past governments and leaders in taking Isro to this historic level of excellence. The Congress could appropriately have congratulated the government and Narendra Modi for this unprecedented achievement, while paying fulsome tribute to the scientists at Isro, and the decades of hard work put in by their predecessors.

Instead, spokespersons of both parties besmirched this hour of glory by acrimonious mudslinging. The Congress and TMC accused the BJP of using Chandrayaan for political gain. Perhaps yes, but honestly which political party in power would not? They also criticised Mr Modi for hogging the limelight by making a long speech on TV at the time of the landing, without acknowledging the contributions of past governments, especially Nehru who initiated space research in India. The BJP countered by asserting that it was the PM’s faith and commitment to this project that contributed to its success. They recalled the moment Mr Modi personally consoled with and restored the courage of a weeping former Isro chief, K. Sivan, when Chandrayaan-2 failed in 2019. They also cited that he flew directly from a foreign trip to congratulate current Isro chairman S. Somnath and his colleagues.

There is, of course, a middle ground, which neither the BJP nor the Congress are ever willing to find. Yes, undoubtedly, some credit for this triumph belongs to the current government. But equally, what was achieved was not because space research in India began only in 2014 when the BJP came to power. Political differences are but normal in a democracy, but our political leaders seem to have developed an unparalleled expertise in taking extreme positions on any development in the country. Either it is entirely good, or entirely bad. Between this unbridgeable polarity, there is a debasing hurling of insults, irresponsible mud-slinging, a great deal of deliberate disinformation, and endless shallow posturing.

Another unseemly controversy broke out over ‘Shiv Shakti’, the PM’s choice of name for the pointwhere the Vikram lander (named after Isro’s first chief, Vikram Sarabhai) touched down. A senior Congress leader described this as ‘laughable’, arguing that Mr Modi did not own the moon to give names to specific places. In fact, his argument was laughable, since other countries have also done this, and the Congress itself had given the name Jawahar Point to the Moon Impact Probe in 2008. The point of contact with the moon of Chandrayaan-2 was named Tiranga.

Secularism was also invoked. The name Shiv Shakti was seen as ‘unsecular’ by some members of the Opposition. However, in a country where the overwhelming majority is Hindu, opposing the name of one of Hinduism’s supreme deities is hardly the way to attack the real danger of growing religious divisiveness in the country. Secularism cannot be reduced to some mechanical formula, where anything and everything must be based sequentially on all the religious communities that are an intrinsic part of our plural country. The real malaise is the misuse of religion for political dividends, and the consequential and growing instability, strife and divisiveness in society. This requires to be politically confronted, without sterile criticism every time some name of Hindu provenance is used. In fact, knee-jerk reactions of this nature only trivialise the real issue, since given the antiquity and richness of Hindu civilisation, it is inevitable that Hindu names will be given — and have been given — for institutions, schemes, projects and such missions. 

Besides, Shiv, at the philosophical level, is not strictly a deity, but cosmic consciousness, described by Tulsidas as “akhandam, ajanmam”, indivisible, unborn, and “nijamnirgunamnirvikalpamniriham”, devoid of attributes, undifferentiated, desireless, just pervasive consciousness.  If Shiv is chitta, pure consciousness, Shakti is chittarurpani, the manifestation of that consciousness. Shiv Shakti combines the transcendental coming together of the male and female energies, and emphasises the joint contribution of both in the pursuit of national objectives. 

Frankly, the citizens of India are tired of this unbecoming bickering. They are asking: When will the world’s largest democracy mature to a greater degree of civility, in Parliament and outside, reviving our ancient tradition of shastrartha, civilised discourse? Democracy is not only about perennial confrontation but also dialogue, and some degree of balance and objectivity. Such virtues will be seriously put to further test as we head toward the 2024 elections, with the Opposition making further progress in its third meeting in Mumbai to strengthen the INDIA alliance, and the BJP equally determined to leave no stone unturned to win this election.