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'Space power' India: What Modi's speech means for polls, national security

Prime Minister Modi, in surprise televised speech, announces announced India now has the capability to target satellites.

Bibhudatta Pradhan & Archana Chaudhary | Bloomberg 

Prime Minister announced India had joined the US, Russia and China in an elite group of nations that have the capability to target satellites.

In a televised address to the nation, Modi said India has shot down a low Earth orbit satellite, noting the capability was crucial for national security.

"India has today established its name as a space power," Modi said. "Our scientists used an anti-satellite missile to bring down a live satellite, 300 kilometers away in space."

India’s current range of missiles are mostly intended for confrontation with neighboruing rivals China and Pakistan. India has fought three wars with Pakistan and one with China.

Modi’s address comes just weeks ahead of general elections to determine whether he’ll serve a second term as prime minister. Voting will take place in seven phases between April 11 and May 19, with results to be announced on May 23.

‘Nationalist fervour’

“This address is an indication that Mr Modi possibly is not very sure of the election campaign going completely his way,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst who has written a Modi biography, adding he may have violated the election code of conduct. “It’s an attempt to bolster nationalist fervour by another means,” Mukhopadhyay said, after realising the patriotic mood generated by tensions between India and Pakistan was “not sufficient” to continue until the end of elections.

Tensions between India and Pakistan escalated dramatically when India launched airstrikes on February 26 to attack what the government said was a terrorist training camp inside Pakistan. The government in Islamabad retaliated the next day, shooting down an Indian jet. India’s initial airstrikes were in response to a suicide bombing in Kashmir that killed 40 paramilitary troops.

“This is significant. India can now take out Chinese communication systems, for instance,” said Bharat Karnad, Delhi-based security expert at the Centre for Policy Research. “The PM is going to derive whatever political benefits he can in election season -- why would he give up the chance?”

In 2007, China first used a ballistic missile to destroy its own old weather satellite orbiting 535 miles (861 km) above Earth; Russia has been testing a missile that could be used to strike and destroy a satellite or ballistic missile.

India’s space and missile programs—along with its economic growth of more than 7 percent and a bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council—is major part of the country’s efforts to build up its defense capabilities and establish itself as a world power.

First Published: Wed, March 27 2019. 16:18 IST
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