OPINION
SPACE VS RACE — SPECTACLE VERSUS HARD QUESTIONS
DANGAL 2019 – You can fight in Space, or you can fight on the ground
- S Pal
DANGAL 2019 – You can fight in Space, or you can fight on the ground



PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi went on national television to announce India now has the capability to shoot down an inimical spy satellite in space.

Indians are supposed to be ecstatic at this achievement, even though there has never been talk of anyone deploying a spy satellite to keep an eye on us. But the government wants you to believe that with this achievement, India has moved a step closer towards becoming great. 

We may not have been able to stop a lynch mob from killing an innocent Muslim, we may not have been able to convince a farmer that suicide is no solution, we may not have been able to tell our poor that they have the right to dream and the regime has a duty to help them realise it, but we now have a missile that will travel through the stratosphere and kill the enemy who is yet to be born.

And you should be grateful for that.

If there wasn't a single scientist in the frame when Modi addressed the nation on an issue involving slightly more complicated science that the one he is familiar with -- how India had plastic surgery all those yuga centuries ago — it is a clear evidence of how politicians see scientific achievements.

Many have wondered at Modi's capacity to change the narrative by choosing just the right platform to appear before captive mass audiences and thus turn the attention to himself.
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It’s between a spectacle and some real questions. A leader can go on air at prime time for either of the two. It’s up to you to lend an ear to the narrative you find right.
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He did it with Balakot strike, something that Yogi Aditiyanath has now revealed was actually the work of Modi Sena and not the Indian Army, unless both have become one, and then with, excuse the pun, spacious claim.

Sadly, Modi lacked originality. It has been done before, and did not succeed much.

Remember the America of the 1960s? The era of being young, of Che Guevara, of flower children, of drugs and hippies, of Woodstock, of bellbottoms, of Marsha Albert, of Beatles, of Afros, of miniskirts, of twist dance, of psychedelic rock — and of race in the space against the enemy.

America had problems, very serious problems. It was feeling seriously threatened by the spread of communism. In its backyard, tiny Cuba was staring it down, and had given it a bloody nose in the Bay of Pigs. The 1960 joust between John F. Kennedy and his Republican opponent, then Veep Richard Nixon, had brought forth a huge cleavage. Cold War was raging, and the Iron Curtain meant the two powers were vying for the top slot.

The United States had far more superior weapons than the Soviet Union, but the leader wanted to tell his people that his weapons were more superior. Just as India's armed forces are far superior to Pakistan's but our leadership wants to tell the Indians that our weaponry is far more superior than the bad neighbour's.

By 1961, the space race had no bearing on national security for the United States. But the Russians had succeeded in getting the eyeballs. Three out of every four satellites in orbit were American, and in contrast to the clumsy Sputniks and Luniks, the US had launched a whole series of Vanguards, Discoverers, Explorers, Pioneers, Samoses, Tiroses (weather) and Transits (navigational), Misases (infrared missile detectors) and Echoes (communications).

But Kennedy wanted a spectacle because Russians were aiming at winning headlines. They had been the first in the orbit, they had photographed the moon, they had put a satellite in orbit around the Venus with devices to radio back information. That they could beat the US to a manned space flight was the real fear. They had already put dogs in the orbit.
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There were a lot of "Bhaiyo aur Bhaino" kind of speeches where Kennedy told the Americans how America was now a major power and a space superstar.
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None of this, as is now clear to anyone with even a casual understanding of the space race, had anything to do with either American security or the pursuit of knowledge. Like Nixon, Kennedy believed that the whole world was watching the rivalry between the two superpowers, and the outcome of every single contest will decide the destiny of these two big ones.

On April 12, 1961, as Vostok 1 went up, Washington slept while Russian radio stations started playing "How Spacious Is My Country." Americans were left stunned because Kennedy, with his constant harping, had stoked enough fears. As Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to cross into outer space, his single orbit swirl around Earth, skimming the upper atmosphere at 169 kilometres at its lowest point, was Modi's "we have now become a space power" moment

There are events whose chief significance lies in the popular response they evoke at the time. Gagarin said when he was in outer space, he was thinking about "our party and our homeland." 
 
Years later, Indira Gandhi did it for herself when she got hitchhiker Rakesh Sharma to say that India, viewed from space, seemed "sare jahan se achha.” The leaders in Russia and the US had stoked a hunger for heroes.  
 
Russians turned Gagarin into one, gave him a 20 gun salute at Moscow's Red Square in full view of a dead Lenin. Another Moscow square was named after him, as was a glacier. Khrushchev compared him to Columbus. 
 

Yuri Gagarin and Nikita Khrushchev at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport just after the cosmonaut’s historic flight in 1961

 
Americans gnashed their teeth. Just as ours do: If only we had Rafael, Balakot would have been more effective! Many American leaders said the US could have got a man up in the space a long time back if somebody at the top had simply decided to push it two years ago.

Americans were angry now, and that meant people were even more prepared to give the government more money. Sections of the rabble rousing media said Kennedy could lose the 1964 election over this. Kennedy decided it had to be the moon or nothing. 

Three weeks later, the first vehicle in NASA's Project Mercury rose from the gantries at Cape Canaveral, carrying naval commander Alan B Sheperd Jr. (pic) The country was elated. 

He spent 15 minutes in outer space, and then days being a part of the parades in his honour. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and National Guard troops paraded in his honour. Jet fighters roared overhead. Legislators debated about renaming his hometown of Derry, New Hampshire, as Space Town, USA.

None of this was lost on the White House, just then smarting from the Bay of Pigs defeat. The president now wanted an estimated seven to nine billion dollars additional over the next five years for the space program, and made it an issue of patriotism.

In July, Air Force Captain Virgil I. Grissom completed a flight similar to Sheperd's, while the Russians sent Major Gherman S Titov whirling around the earth 17 times in August. In November, NASA orbited a male chimpanzee and recovered him after two trips around the earth. Then came the turn of Marine Lieutenant Colonel John H Glenn Jr.

It was evident that if Glenn made it back, he would be America's first aerospace superstar. He lifted off the pad at 10 a.m. Tuesday, February 20, 1962, but his departure was magnified many times.

He had been instructed to explain his every sensation -- the audience after all was paying for the trip. He explained how the sun was "very white,” and then, as it goes below the Horizon, "turns a very bright orange colour.”

Sometimes he ran out of words. "I don't know what you can say about a day in which you see four beautiful sunsets," he said.

Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr., Presents a Gift to President John F. Kennedy

 
When he returned, he was destined to become an idol, to be turned into one. Americans preserved his footprints in paint and put them in the Smithsonian museum. When, as he met his wife and kids, he wiped his eyes, alert officials took away his handkerchief for preservation. Vice President Lyndon B Johnson received him. President Kennedy greeted him. Glenn was sent to every other continent. 

There were a lot of "Bhaiyo aur Bhaino" kind of speeches where Kennedy told the Americans how America was now a major power and a space superstar. The space race, of course, continued…

* * * 

When the leader of the country sends signals that his entire attention is up there in the space where he is fighting the enemy, what’s happening on the ground gets little attention. But the truth is that America had a fully-blown Black problem on its hands exactly when it was aiming for the moon. All it needed to tear apart the United States of America was a decision by 13 men – seven black and six white – to travel in a bus and go south. 

On May 4, 1961, three weeks after Gagarin’s space flight, the bus carrying these 13 members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) left Washington. The south was still very racial, the decision of the courts notwithstanding. Blacks were discriminated against at interstate bus terminals, in waiting rooms, restaurants and toilets. The 13 Freedom Riders planned to trundle down across Dixie South, through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, then southwest to Atlanta, Alabama and onwards across Mississippi and down to New Orleans. 

Everywhere, there was resistance. The south had no liberals. The 13 chose a moment in history that caught the US badly. The Russians had just won the race. So they could be attacked for creating problems in America exactly when Russia would welcome it, almost exactly as Indian leaders accuse someone of saying stuff that ostensibly helps Pakistan! Besides, the Americans had just gotten a shock in the Bay of Pigs.  
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President Kennedy asked Army General Henry Graham to say it to his face that the entire might of the United States Army cannot protect Martin Luther King.  
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Somewhere in some dark corner of the American mind, there still lurked the traces of McCarthyism. Just as Indians are told to go to Pakistan, the US Army General Paul D. Harkins, who earned notoriety for exaggerating the gains of army strikes against Viet Cong, told journalists critical of his approach that they should instead join the enemy in Saigon.

The Freedom Riders were opposed in several cities, no one paid much attention to the local newspaper reports, till in Charlotte, North Carolina, and later in Rock Hill, South Carolina, violence escalated and they were beaten. In Atlanta, Ku Klux Klansmen ambushed their bus. In Birmingham, they were beaten methodically. Atlanta Governor John Patterson shamelessly refused to protect them. Governors of many southern states stopped taking the phone calls from the President of the United States andhis Attorney General Brother Bob Kennedy. Martin Luther King (pic) landed at Montgomery and in frustration, President Kennedy asked Army General Henry Graham to say it to his face that the entire might of the United States Army cannot protect Martin Luther King.  

The Freedom Riders finally won the day, but the entire saga showed how when a leadership is fighting largely false wars that are to be used as political spectacles, the real issues get sidelined till they come to haunt a nation so badly that it hurts for a long, long time.

If India is to find its destiny, it must look at the ground level and redress the situation in which the poor, the farmers, the frustrated youth, the Dalits, the adivasis, the women, the minorities, find themselves. It can take pride in its ability to knock out a satellite in space, but its destiny will be decided if its children went to school, received an education that turned them into decent human beings capable of contributing towards national progress. 

It’s between a spectacle and some real questions. A leader can go on air at prime time for either of the two. It’s up to you to lend an ear to the narrative you find right. 
 

 

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