Science & Technology

Will electoral compulsions force govt to use muscular tech?

Display of technological power is being identified as a valid political tool to galvanise public sentiment

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Friday 11 October 2019
Chandrayaan 2, India's voyage to the moon. Photo: ISRO

From the powerful show of military strength to carry out air strikes to undertaking voyages to the moon, technology is finally catching political imagination. Display of technological power is being identified as a valid political tool to galvanise public sentiment.

As this column argued some months ago, such technological showmanship instils the “feel strong” sentiment among people, rather the voters. And there is a clear global trend on who uses such a display to trigger the “feel strong” sentiment.

Countries — including developed and developing or emerging — where political leadership survives on nationalism and self-pride, have resorted to this strategy. Russia, after the Cold War and the collapse of the erstwhile USSR, is once again flexing its military muscle. It has been regularly using tests of new technology in the military sphere to not only gain global attention, but also to serve its government’s domestic constituency.

Of late, the US has started responding to this craving. Both the countries seem to be reliving the Cold War era rivalries, but in a different context. China has already scripted its technology-driven identity and is now using it to expand its strategic footprint across the world.

India didn’t sleep on September 7 as the whole country waited in anticipation for Vikram to successfully land on the moon. It was not successful, but again another round of celebrations followed just to cheer the country’s technological marvel, in terms of even reaching there. Political leadership used every possible public space to evoke India’s “new” avatar as a world power.

Of course, we should celebrate every bit of scientific advancement in the country. But what is worrying is whether political use of such high-grade technology on the planetary understanding of a satellite would drown and discourage propagation of science and technology concerning people’s day-to-day crises. Take for example, the toilet technology for Indians who have finally decided not to defecate in the open.

As reports from various agencies suggest, India doesn’t have a suitable toilet technology for its diversified geography. It is going to be a major challenge now that India has declared itself open defecation free. How will we manage the solid and liquid waste? If the basic technology of the toilet is not too effective or has not been implemented as per the technological norms, the challenge of waste disposal will remain.

Similarly, there is a political push to deal with India’s water crisis. But whenever we talk about farming with less water, we are reminded about the Israeli technology.

There are very few examples of politicians taking pride in India’s traditional technologies that deal with basics such as water and sanitation. However for the nationalistic groups, such technologies are only discussed in terms of India’s ancient wisdom. But there is little effort to make this ancient wisdom into a mass political agenda to solve contemporary but nagging problems of the basics.

After the sanitation drive, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made access to basic water needs at the household level as the next big agenda. Along with space and military technologies, he has also spoken about the challenge of water crisis.

So the political leadership has not lost sight of India’s primary challenges. But the fear that it will get swayed by electoral compulsions — and use various tools like the muscular display of technology — is imminent for an elected government.

While it is heartening to see that technological advancement has gained acceptance among the political leadership, the challenge to deliver the basics shouldn’t become an orphan for the scientific leadership.

This article was part of Down To Earth's print edition dated October 1-15, 2019

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