Opinion | The people of India and the country’s great space race

To discuss the A-SAT’s merits while ignoring the context would be to misread the motivations that animate our leadership

As game theorists, we cannot, with a good conscience, object to an action merely because it carries a strong trace of self-interest. We refer here, of course, to the 27 March test of an anti-satellite (A-SAT) gun and the nuclear sabre-rattling engaged in by India’s prime minister in the run-up to the general elections. But recasting real life interactions as board games to bring strategic interests into sharp relief—hey, that’s right up our street!

Obviously, the board game would be called The Great Space Race. The theme is straightforward: in a hostile geo-political environment, neighbouring countries are engaged in a space race to protect their national security. Each nation has an endowment of resources that is either used to build satellites (referred to as the militarization of space) or develop anti-satellite technology (the weaponization of space) or to initiate attacks on the other country. Nations are not equal in terms of the endowment of resources. Leaders attempt to stay ahead and laggards play leapfrog using modern technology. Attacks could be either conventional or space-based. The consequent damage to the attacker and the defender depends on the relative amount of resources controlled and the mode of attack. Players must also navigate their internal contexts, which act as limitations and serve to assign roles. For example, some parties are best known for espousing nationalism, others for being flag-bearers of social justice.

Let’s cut to the real world. On 16 June 2017, Chinese troops with construction vehicles and road-building equipment begin extending an existing road southward in Doklam, an area disputed between China and Bhutan, and of strategic importance to India. On 18 June 2017, about 270 Indian troops cross the Sikkim border to stop the Chinese troops. On 28 August, both India and China announce that they have withdrawn all their troops from the face-off site in Doklam. However, China quietly deploys troops and continues to build new infrastructure in the area, slowly but steadily gaining an upper hand.

Now that India is armed with an A-SAT gun, could it shoot down the Chinese satellite engaged in surveillance and deploy troops without fear of retribution? Not really. As of 24 January 2018, there were 320 dual-use or dedicated military satellites in the sky. Of these, 123 were owned by the US, 74 by Russia, 68 by China, and only 14 by India. Thus, if China were to engage in a tit-for-tat strategy, India would lose a far greater proportion of its civilian and military capability than China.

Of course, life is no board game. The point is that before going for weaponization, through its anti-satellite missile, India could have undertaken militarization, ie. chosen to achieve a measure of parity with China in terms of satellites. Moreover, like the US, Russia and China, it could have focused on laser and cyber capabilities for neutralizing satellites rather than on A-SAT weaponry.

We agree that we may be quibbling about a non-issue as no one is actually about to go around shooting down enemy missiles. Except that there is a deeper dynamic at play—the weaponization of space gets headlines, and, possibly, votes, but militarization does not.

The political theory of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rosseau postulates that people give up their freedoms to governments in return for the provision of a set of public goods, including national security. However, it is possible that the provision of national security can become the main pillar legitimizing a government, at the expense of other basic services like education, health and employment. This constitutes the politicization of war where the purpose of supposedly antagonistic governments is not to secure peace but to stoke conflict and distract people from their failures on other fronts. Ideally, in a democracy, this should reflect in the government getting voted out, but the electorate may take some time to catch on.

Such a phenomenon has some tell-tale signs. First, and most important, there is a divergence between a government’s performance on national security and the assertion of its security credentials. The Kashmir insurgency has worsened since the surgical strikes and demonetization, both of which were purportedly done to put an end to terrorism. There were 358 insurgency-related fatalities in 2017, compared to 267 the year before; estimated infiltrations went up to 406 in 2017 from 371 in 2016; civilian deaths increased by 166% in 2017. Each of these statistics serves to increase support of the Bharatiya Janata Party among its supporters by vindicating their hatred of the enemy, rather than raising a question about the ineffectiveness of India’s defence capabilities under their party’s watch. Second, there is an emphasis on hard military power over soft power based on trade and cultural exchange. Third, economic metrics like data on unemployment and gross domestic product growth that would reveal the consequences of the government’s ill-conceived economic policies are obfuscated.

To discuss the merits of the A-SAT gun’s test while ignoring the underlying context would be to misread the key motivations that animate our leadership. Various instances of chest-thumping in the run-up to the general elections and calls issued to first-time voters to dedicate their vote to the brave Indian soldier fall in the category of diversionary tactics aimed at lulling the masses into forgetting the tall promises once made to them by the “conjuror of development", now recast as “The Great Space Ace". 23 May will tell us who holds the aces—the people or their leaders.

Rohit Prasad and Abeer Kapoor are, respectively, a professor at MDI, Gurgaon, and a journalist and developer of the board game ‘The Poll’