Contrasting reactions to India’s Mars mission

Narendra Modi congratulating ISRO scientists. Source: Photoshot

Narendra Modi congratulating ISRO scientists. Source: Photoshot

Mangalyaan drew a range of reactions in the global media – from backhanded compliments in the western media to genuine happiness in Russia.

In 2008 when India’s Chandrayaan spacecraft orbited the moon, Fox News ran this headline: “Whoa, where’d they learn to do that!” To the rednecks at the American television channel, it was news that India had aerospace scientists and engineers. It was, therefore, predictable that when they covered India’s successful Mars mission, Fox News’ view was: “It’s also a major feat for the developing country of 1.2 billion people, most of whom are poor.”

The statistics about India’s poverty is a stock phrase that is used with uncanny regularity by western journalists whenever India achieves a significant milestone. The Guardian of England writes: “Some have questioned the $70m price tag for a country still dealing with widespread hunger and poverty.”

The Guardian, in fact, attempts to communalise the event, saying the “Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a hardline affiliate group of (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, offered ritual prayers in Delhi for the mission. The leader of the group said success would prove that India ‘has regained its status of superpower of the world’.”

The British Broadcasting Corp, which doesn't miss any opportunity to highlight India's poverty, pontificates: “Many, however, say this bid to reach Mars is a ‘delusional dream’ of India seeking super-power status since 400 million Indians still live without electricity and 600 million people still do not have access to toilets.” Apparently, the British elites still haven’t got over their post-colonial hangover.

The newswire Reuters headlines its report “India triumphs in maiden Mars mission, sets record in space race” and then offers a parting shot: “Despite its success, India faces criticism for spending on space research as millions go hungry.

In contrast, countries as different as Russia and Pakistan have reported the event dispassionately, and without editorialising.

RT's coverage is textbook journalism – you report what you see without peering through coloured filters. "This is India's first mission into such deep space to search for evidence of life on the Red Planet. But the mission's primary objective is technological – if successful, the country will be joining an elite club of nations: the United States, Russia and Europe," it writes.

The Voice of Russia quotes Russian Academy of Cosmonautics member Andrei Ionin: “For India it is a huge success. This is definitely a gigantic project. India, like many other countries seeks to increase its role in the global technological process and hence pays great importance to space exploration. After all, one of the attributes of a highly technologically advanced super-power is the national space industry.”

In another article, the radio station says: “In the sprint for the Martian marathon, India has shown its technological capability and resilience to undertake arduous inter-planetary journeys.

You see, there was no need to reel off hunger statistics when they are not relevant to the topic. The big news is that India did something incredible and at a jaw-dropping low cost. Also, the photograph of a galaxy of “Rocket Women” clad in colourful silk saris launching into celebrations at the mission control facility in Bangalore was a story in itself. But then, that wouldn’t fit in with the western media’s narrative, which depicts India as a brutal place for women.

One key area in which the western media excels is in constantly referring to any Indian advance in space as part of a tit-for-tat race with China. The Economist, the western mouthpiece, nonchalantly dismisses the event, saying, “Mangalyaan carries few sensors and will discover little of scientific merit.” But it quickly agrees that “to point that out is both petty and beside the point. The main purpose was to get a craft there quickly (ie, before the Chinese) — and cheaply”.

This is plain ridiculous. First up, the Chinese mission was planned a lot earlier but unfortunately became a nonevent when the Russian rocket carrying it failed to place it high enough, causing it to plummet back to earth. Secondly, the Indian mission was launched after the Chinese spacecraft was lost. So how is it a race when nobody was chasing anyone?

In fact, the only race – if at all – was between Mangalyaan and NASA’s Maven, which arrived over Mars just two days the Indian spacecraft. However, the western media never talked about that as a race because to do that would be hyphenating the US with India whereas they would rather club India-China together and project it as an Asian version of the Space Race.

Again, RT puts things squarely in perspective. “Many analysts argue that India is engaged in a space race specifically with China, and that the former’s Mars orbiter was spurred on by the failure of China’s Yinghuo-1 mission to Mars in November 2011.”

“Yet, unlike in the Cold War era, when the USSR and the US engaged in a spectacular tit-for-tat space race while remaining economically and politically estranged from each other, China and India today have a booming trade relationship and are not engaged in any outright ideological confrontation. If there is a “new Cold War” rivalry now, it is more between a whole group of powers led by Russia and the US.”

“There are elements of a Cold War mindset when China and India square off in strategic competition, but it remains embedded within the liberal framework of economic globalization and cooperation. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s call for “joint efforts” in space exploration after India’s Mars orbiter launch underlines the complexity of this key bilateral relationship in Asia.”

RT also adds considerable value to the coverage, offering this interesting nugget of information: “India is mindful that the strides it’s making in space science can also be a medium for enhancing international cooperation. For instance, its Moon mission in 2008 won the International Cooperation Award from the International Lunar Exploration Working Group for carrying a payload of as many as 20 countries.”

Basically, the western media is so predictable in its coverage of India’s successes in the aerospace and defence sectors that you could almost set your watch to it. Space being the next frontier of colonisation, it touches a raw nerve in the West. Having colonised most of the planet in the past 300 years, western nations – especially of English origin – instinctively react with hostility when other nations reach for the final frontier.

Those who argue that India shouldn’t embark upon space exploration because it has lots of poor people miss the point entirely. The $1 billion (India’s annual space budget) saved would not be of much help in removing poverty. Plus, India’s space programme has brought huge benefits to Indian farmers, the fishing industry, the telecom sector, disaster management agencies and the military, to name just a few.

Take Cyclone Phailin, which struck both India and the Philippines last year. India, which depended on ISRO’s weather satellites, had casualties in the single digits; in Philippines, which had no such satellites and resorted to mass prayers in churches, over 10,000 people died.

Critics of the Indian space programme need to be told that if the US had waited until there were no poor Americans before sending astronauts to the Moon, then the Apollo rockets would still be sitting on the launch pad. For, there are over 50 million Americans suffering from chronic hunger today.

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