By launching the GSAT-9 ‘South Asia satellite’ , India has reaffirmed the Indian Space Research Organisation’s scientific prowess, but the messaging is perhaps more geopolitical than geospatial. To begin with, the Centre has kept its promise of considering India’s “neighbourhood first”. Within a month of taking over as Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi went to Sriharikota for the launch of PSLV C-23 and “challenged” ISRO scientists to build this satellite for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The decision was then announced at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu, and the government has kept its commitment of gifting its neighbours at least one transponder each on the GSAT-9, a project that cost about ₹450 crore. India has no doubt gained goodwill across the subcontinent through the gesture, and the moment was neatly captured by the videoconference that followed the launch, showing all SAARC leaders (with the exception of Pakistan’s) together on one screen as they spoke of the benefits they would receive in communication, telemedicine, meteorological forecasting and broadcasting. The message is equally strong to South Asia’s other benefactor, China, at a time when it is preparing to demonstrate its global clout at the Belt and Road Forum on May 14-15. The Belt and Road Initiative is an infrastructure network that every SAARC nation other than India has signed on to. China has pledged billions of dollars in projects to each of the countries in the region; that, India is obviously not in a position to match.
Where India does excel is in its space programme, as it is the only country in South Asia that has independently launched satellites on indigenously developed launch vehicles. However, in recent years Pakistan and Sri Lanka have launched satellites with assistance from China, while Afghanistan, the Maldives and Nepal are also understood to have discussed satellite projects with China. Bangladesh, which will launch its first satellite Bangabandhu-1 this year, is working with a European agency. With the GSLV launch India is showing that where it is capable its commitment to the development of its neighbours is strong. Finally, by going ahead with the project despite Pakistan’s decision to pull out, the Modi government is signalling that it will continue with its plans for the neighbourhood — ‘SAARC minus one’ — if necessary. This vision was dealt a minor blow recently when Bhutan pulled out of the ‘mini-SAARC’ alternative plan of a motor vehicles agreement for BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India Nepal), but the government’s persistence indicates it will not be deterred by the obvious domestic constraints of the SAARC grouping. As Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, particularly aggrieved by Pakistan’s refusal to grant transit rights for India-Afghanistan trade, said at the launch of the GSLV-F09: “If cooperation through land is not possible, we can be connected through space.”