With Chandrayaan’s glorious landing near the south pole of the Moon, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has once again proven to be the cynosure of our Bharatiya eyes. Their business ethos, resourcefulness, and panache in executing critical projects are worthy of emulation by all working in the public sector. It has stayed meritocratic thanks to the customised technocracy its founders, Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, insisted on before their boss – Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The institution succeeds because it has avoided even positive discrimination, giving it a talent that delivers when it matters.
But who does it matter to? Does the ISRO work of its own volition? Is it so autonomous that it has no oversight from any government ministry? At least, that is what some in the political opposition are trying to wrongly convey to the masses while they congratulate ISRO and foolishly spell that the PM and his government have nothing to do with this success. It is as if an irritable person is half-heartedly congratulating a child for doing well in exams and deliberately ignoring the child’s parents and grandparents who stood behind rock-solid. Let’s dispel some misconceptions that some in the opposition may be portraying knowingly or give them the benefit of the doubt unknowingly.
It is weird to write this article. Such an obvious matter of fact has to be stated to those in public life. The ISRO is a constituent of the Department of Space, whose charge is with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The ministers who govern the DoS are the Minister of State, PMO and the Prime Minister. The Chairperson of ISRO is also the Secretary, DoS and Chairperson of the Space Commission. The Commission comprises top-ranking secretaries across ministries, the national security advisor, the principal scientific advisor, and nationally recognised scientists.
In their role as Secretary, DoS, the ISRO Chairperson, also looks after the administration of various autonomous R&D institutions, promotional and soon-to-be-regulator IN-SPACe, public sector enterprises like ANTRIX and New Space India Limited, and others related to India’s publicly-funded space ecosystem and outside the ISRO organogram. The Space Commission Chairperson convenes the commission members on various aspects of strategising, operationalising, financing, troubleshooting, providing a security cover, and diplomatically manoeuvring the space program to meet the national targets.
With Chandrayaan’s immense success, the rousing public support it garnered, and the share market rallying behind the companies that were vendors, space exploration missions undertaken within the space program may likely be part of the manifesto of any political party forming the government. Political parties could manifest ‘practically doable’ space missions based on the wherewithal within DoS and ISRO. However, the space program itself is nonpartisan, and that of the Government of India, whichever political party or coalition forms it. Therefore, ISRO works on the orders of the government of the day, the funding that the same government deploys for its annual operations, and the agency regularly interacts with various ministries and agencies of the central and state governments.
With this matter of fact so evident, spelt out time and again, and present in various publicly-available documents that any member of parliament or legislative assembly has access to, why do some in the opposition wish ISRO Chairman and not the Prime Minister?
Chandrayaan is India’s megaproject. Such megaprojects can only be undertaken with the vision, decisiveness, and economic and political patronage from the top, i.e. the Prime Minister. This patronage has existed since 1969, the establishment of ISRO, when it was spun off from the Department of Atomic Energy during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s tenure. So if Prime Minister Nehru’s tenure is credited with establishing the Indian National Committee on Space Research (INCOSPAR), then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi must be credited for projects like Aryabhata, SLV, and Interkosmos. If PSLV’s (ISRO’s allrounder launcher) space-proven tag is credited to those who worked under Prime Minister Rao’s tenure, then the Chandrayaan programme is credited to PM Vajpayee’s tenure. If Chandrayaan-1’s success and the Mars Orbiter Mission are credited to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure, then Gaganyaan, Chandrayaan-2 and 3, the LVM-3 proving and the space sector reforms, are credited to PM Narendra Modi.
I’d also unfailingly mention that the work on many of these projects begins not when they are announced; its creativity and conceptualising predate beyond our imaginations. Hence, I stick my neck out and say that green-lighting and executing specific missions may be credited to particular PMs and their governmental tenures – making the credits appear partisan. Still, the work on such mega projects often span various PM tenures, involving efforts of numerous sung and unsung scientific minds, making the space program nonpartisan.
There is an often unsaid reason for any nation’s space program to be led by its supreme leadership. In the US, it is the President; the same in France, UAE, Russia, Japan, Australia and Argentina. The power that resides with the top national leadership is crucial for quickly supplying the resources necessary for smoothly running various space mega projects. Such powers do not exist in any other arm of the government.
All the successes and failures of India’s space program exist due to the Prime Minister’s patronage and whosoever has occupied that position. Favourable domestic and international circumstances mixed with the strategically-minded and committed leadership of PMs are vital for ensuring that the technical and intellectual prowess residing within ISRO executes national goals marvellously.
We are all happy with the success of landing near the moon’s south pole, not merely because we are the first to do so. But because this momentous event will have constructive ramifications for our country and civilisation. ISRO, after briefly celebrating their well-deserved success, will move on to the subsequent missions and deliverables. Making Chandrayaan earn strategic benefits for the nation is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and his government’s task. We have all seen he has been swift to assume his role here. The PMO has ensured those joyous reactions to the Chandrayaan come not only from cities and villages but also from the Kashmir Valley, which is positively coming out of the shadows of terrorism. The PMO has already impressed India’s Chandrayaan success during the BRICS Summit on fellow national leaders and will also do so during the G20 Summit next month. He has already shared the mission as a success of entire humanity and this has immensely boosted India’s standing in the world.
For a country that was told first to build toilets and then think of space missions, PM Modi has delivered both. In the past nearly ten years, his government has elevated sanitation and delivered a lunar landing. Chandrayaan landing will positively impact India domestically and internationally for the foreseeable future. The PM will be the foremost of Chandrayaan’s ambassadors wherever he goes.
Chandrayaan is indeed ISRO and DoS’s success – we all will celebrate and felicitate everyone belonging to that coveted institution. But let us, including the few petulants in the opposition, fathom and respect the fact that no modern scientific achievement can happen without top leadership’s patronage. The space program runs well when a capable national leader is its patron. It falters, when an incapable leader sits on the chair. As for those accusing PM Modi of lapping up all credit, remember he is the one who built the Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya chronicling the memories of all our beloved prime minister’s; he is the one who renamed the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library to the Prime Minister’s Museum and Library Society. Let’s celebrate all our prime ministers and the numerous sung and unsung talented people they gathered from within and outside DoS that led us to this week – when India finally landed on the moon – at the Shiv Shakti Sthal.