On Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in a televised address to the nation that India has joined an elite group of countries capable of destroying a satellite in space. He described “Mission Shakti” as an “unprecedented achievement”.
In tweets that followed his 10-minute-long address, Modi said that India, the fourth country in the world to possess the technology to test an anti-satellite missile, stands “tall as a space power”.
The international media responded coolly to the news. While reporting on the development, several news organisations also referred to how similar exercises in the past have raised concerns about the weaponisation of space.
The upcoming Lok Sabha elections
Most international media organisations reported news of the satellite strike in the context of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in April and May.
The BBC placed the news prominently on its website on Wednesday afternoon. Upon clicking on the link on its homepage, it opened to a headline that played up the election angle: India election 2019: Modi says India now a ‘space power’.
It also clubbed the report with other news about the Lok Sabha election, such as seizures in poll-related inspections and the agrarian crisis in India.
Both BBC and The New York Times quoted journalist Shekhar Gupta, who tweeted that Modi’s announcement “shows a poll-eve desperation we hadn’t yet detected/suspected”.
The United Kingdom’s Independent online newspaper, quoting NDTV’s science editor Pallav Bagla, said that India already possessed the ability to take down live satellites. The Independent, too, focussed on how the announcement may have been timed to influence voters in favour of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
“Mr Modi concluded his TV statement by listing his administration’s security achievements, appearing to blur the lines of what could be considered a political statement,” the report said.
Pakistan’s Dawn displayed the news prominently on its website on Wednesday afternoon. It was, however, a report from French news agency AFP, devoid of any changes.
The Dawn headline said: “India claims to shoot down satellite, join ‘space superpowers’,” and the report said the mission had taken place ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in which Modi was seeking a second term.
‘Readiness of armed forces’
Niha Masih’s report for the Washington Post was also tucked away in the newspaper’s “world section” online.
The report referred to the tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad following India’s February 26 air strikes in Balakot, Pakistan. It brought up India’s outdated military equipment as well.
It said: “The successful test comes amid broader concerns about the readiness of India’s armed forces for modern battles. It recently engaged Pakistan in its first aerial dogfight in decades, fielding much older aircraft than its rival.”
The Post also mentioned a parliamentary report from March 2018 that stated that “68% of India’s equipment is in the vintage category”. It went on to talk of “India’s growing ambitions and footprint in space”, India’s Mars mission Mangalyaan, and the manned space mission planned for 2022.
The last paragraph mentioned the month-long Lok Sabha elections, saying it starts on April 11 with results on May 23.
Concerns about space debris
The website of the French newspaper Le Monde focussed on the downside of satellite destruction technology, saying that it has a “disadvantage of projecting thousands of debris flying at full speed in the Earth’s orbit”. The report also carried a video explainer on the problem of space debris.
Xinhua, the government-run press agency of China, made it evident that Beijing does not consider India’s achievement to be important, carrying a one-sentence report on the announcement.
Many prominent news organisations across the world reported the development as something Modi had claimed, not as something that may have actually happened.
The New York Times, for instance, said: “The claim of a successful missile test has not been independently confirmed”. The Dawn headline also used the words “India claims”.
The New York Times implied that several Indian were sceptical of the announcement. It said: “Mr Modi announced the news in a rare televised address to the nation, and many Indians were immediately suspicious that his primary objective was more political than technological.”