India and Space: The Launch of Chandrayaan

It may have been relatively small story in the Western media, but the launch of India’s first moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, occupied the front pages of India’s regional and domestic media for weeks until it was kicked off by the tragic events that took place in Mumbai last week.

India’s latest adventure into space is part of a new space race, this time between China, Japan and India. By 2015, India plans to follow up with a manned space mission. Clearly, this is part of the country’s desire to become a member of the elite club of the world’s super powers. At the same time, the Chandrayaaan-1 mission has also attracted a fair amount of criticism within India and beyond.

How can a country that has close to 40 percent of its population living on less than US$1.50 a day waste so much money (US$79 million) on a program that may have no direct impact on its poor? To some extent, similar questions have been asked about India’s nuclear power efforts, its elite universities, sophisticated technology centers, and just about everything that focuses on India’s nascent status as a global player, if not yet a global power. Are India’s current tactics for achieving the status of a global power the right ones?

At a recent gathering of elite Indians and Indian-Americans in New York, there seemed to be a general consensus that Indian leaders have been far too focused on “hard power” strategies in exerting India’s global status - ranging from the military or nuclear power to the scale of the economy. In each of these areas, India can be seen, at best, as a regional power or a “wannabe” global power. China’s recent Olympic splash has dampened Indian aspirations to be seen as an accomplished global power.

But what if India created a new paradigm for a global power club? After all, India has done this before. Mahatma Gandhi put India on the world map not through hard power but through the power of his ideas and his actions, through a non-violent independence movement. India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharal Nehru, established his global bona fides by articulating a vision of a newly independent nation without bowing to the influence of the two prevalent super powers. He forged a notion of a modern, forward looking nation that was steeped in and proud of its traditions.

Once again, India has a unique opportunity to create a new vision for itself and for the world. At this moment in world history, amid a severe global economic crisis, there is a prevailing feeling that we are witnessing the decline of the world view as we have known it for the last 300 years. During this time, we saw the age of Enlightenment with a focus on a rational, analytical mind. This resulted in a great mind-body dichotomy that privileged the life of the mind. The rise of capitalism and its ultimate dominance resulted in not only the triumph of individualism, but also of individual greed. As pundits around the world pointed out, the current economic malaise, at its deepest level, is about a selfish pursuit of materialism at all costs.

What is urgently needed is a new philosophy for a new world. This new world would nurture our intuitive as well as our analytical skills. It would cherish a relational sense of self, emphasizing the connection between an individual and the community. It would privilege a world view that allows for multiple paths to spiritual awakening and personal cultivation.

No other country can claim the deep philosophical basis for such a holistic view of the world as India. India has already made a singular contribution to the world through the practice of yoga, which aims to bring the mind-body alignment into the mainstream. India’s spiritual traditions, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain, have always celebrated the idea of diverse paths for individual growth. The Indian notion of the universe – relating the smallest earthly particle to the largest cosmos in minute details – could lead, for instance, to innovative ways to deal with our current environmental crisis. Arguably, India’s strongest suit lies in the power of its millennia-old ideas and their relevance today.

It would be exhilarating to contemplate the possibility of India putting the power of ideas, its “soft power”, at the center of its global agenda and place its “hard power” ambitions to follow its philosophical and cultural underpinnings. Three hundred years from now, it is likely that India’s current accomplishments – including sending Chandrayaan-1 to the moon – will seem like pale reflections of the more powerful global actors such as China or the United States. On the other hand, India has a much greater potential to be considered as a unique global player through its historical depth and philosophical wisdom. Three hundred years from now, India has a greater chance of being remembered as a great global player if it takes the road less travelled - a path frequently taken by its leaders in recent history but often forgotten by the current establishment.

Vishakha N. Desai is the president of the Asia Society.