After evoking feverish speculation following the announcement that he would address the nation on Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday gave a speech saying India had joined the select club of countries that have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities. Announcing the success of “Mission Shakti”, Modi said India had successfully used a missile to bring down a low-orbit satellite.

Even as other Bharatiya Janata Party ministers took to Twitter to congratulate the government, using the party’s slogan, “the impossible is now possible”, questions started to be asked about whether Modi’s speech was appropriate at at time when the model code of conduct is in place – and also whether the decision to do so reflects insecurity within the Bharatiya Janata Party about its re-election prospects.

What was announced

First, take a look at what was announced.

Put simply, India has demonstrated the capability to bring down a satellite in space. India has actually had this capability for some time – back in 2012, Defence Research and Development Organisation chief VK Saraswat said that India could demonstrate anti-satellite operations if the government gives the nod. But having the capability and demonstrating it is something else.

Only three other countries have done so before: the United States, Russia and China. In fact, China’s decision to demonstrate its power to shoot down a satellite in 2007 prompted unhappy responses from a number of other nations concerned about the militarisation of space.

India’s current exercise seems clear that this was purely a test of the country’s capabilities. There was no proximate threat or need to test it right now, other than technical questions like atmosphere conditions and so on.

How it was announced

At 11.23 am, Modi tweeted out an announcement about the impending announcement.

The tweet sparked a great deal of discussion and anxiety on television and online. The last major address Modi made to the nation was in November 2016 to announce demonetisation (although there have been a few more since). As a result, there was much talk of whether this would be a move aimed at shoring up the Bharatiya Janata Party’s re-election chances.

With elections less than a month away, the Model Code of Conduct in place. This series of guidelines is aimed at ensuring a level playing field for all political parties. As a result, it seemed likely that Narendra Modi’s announcement would be related to national security.

Then 11.45 am came. Then noon came. Then 12.20 pm. The delay led to even more speculation, and humour, as well as the news that Modi’s announcement would be coming after a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security. The speech finally came at 12.24 pm and, for many, was underwhelming compared to what people had been expecting in the interim.

What does it mean?

One a purely technical front, the capability is significant and does place India in a rather elite club. As mentioned earlier, carrying out such a test is not done lightly, since any country that does it is accused of furthering the militarisation of space. The defence establishment and political leadership’s decision to take such a call will no doubt come under tremendous scrutiny from national security experts and analysts.

But the announcement also brings up a number of other questions not related to the missile test itself:

  • Was Modi’s speech appropriate?
    Even if technical reasons meant that India had to test out the missile right now, did this merit an address to the nation from the prime minister in the middle of an election campaign when the model code of conduct is in place? Remember, there was no mention of an actual national security threat. The announcement meant that Modi will get an inordinate amount of coverage in the media, including his own ministers using the party’s “Namumkin ab mumkin hai” slogan (“the impossible is now possible”).

    Could such an announcement have been left to the defence establishment or scientists who carried it out? Remember, before the model code was in place, Modi did not address the nation despite an Air Force pilot having been captured by Pakistan.
  • Is the BJP insecure about its re-election?
    It is hard not to see the drama around Modi’s announcement, and the subsequent chest-thumping by the government and its ministers, as a sign that the BJP wants to get political mileage out of a move like this. Is it concerned that the “Balakot bump” – a boost it was expecting after carrying out an airstrike on Pakistan – has already faded in voters minds?

    Undoubtedly any decision to interrupt the campaign is a reflection of some thinking within the BJP, especially because of how few precedents there are. The BJP is certainly the frontrunner in this election, yet a move like this makes it seem as if the party is itself grasping at straws in the hope of finding something that will connect with the people. It is worth noting that the announcement comes days after a major Congress promise to guarantee a minimum income to India’s poor.
  • Will voters care?
    The Election Commission may conclude that Modi’s address was acceptable because it related to an issue of national security, even as questions are raised about its propriety. Will the unprecedented action have been worth it though? How likely is it that Modi’s announcement about something that literally happened in space find favour with voters on the ground?

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