There is an enduring image of an RK Laxman cartoon when India staged its first successful underground nuclear test at Pokhran in 1974. It shows Prime Minister Indira Gandhi walking into a room full of suited and booted Western men – symbolising developed countries.
The saree-clad Mrs Gandhi has her nose turned up in pride but is carrying on her shoulder a stick with a cloth bundle representative of India's beggars.
That image of India's entry into the elite nuclear club is only a milestone in a long chain of scientific events.
Behind India’s Space Missions
The space odyssey began in 1962 when Indira's father Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru set up the Indian National Committee for Space Research with rocket pioneer Vikram Sarabhai as guide.
Make no mistake, there is a series of delicious ironies as we discuss India's long history of space missions.
This week's successful landing of Chandrayaan-3 – a wholly Indian moon lander mission – is wrapped in historical hiccups that hide setbacks, snubs, and warts that have surrounded them.
In 1993, when PV Narasimha Rao of the Congress was prime minister, ISRO's first Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-D1) was launched, but it could not place in orbit the satellite it was meant to deploy.
In 2001, when Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, the first development flight of the PSLV's big successor Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) meant to carry heavy payloads ended up as a failure.
The Chandrayaan-2 fell short of its objectives in 2019 when Narendra Modi was PM. However, somewhere along the way, the Chandrayaan-1 under Manmohan Singh's prime ministership (2008) and the Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan, 2014) achieved their orbiting objectives.
What can be said with certainty is that cutting across party lines, prime ministers went ahead with 'the Great Indian Dream'.
They vigorously supported and in turn, were ably backed by scientists now famous for everything from carrying rocket components on bicycles to sporting colourful silk sarees in the mission control room.
A Nehruvian Vision
From Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, the common feature of India's scientific thrust has been a strange cocktail of fierce determination and frugal budgets amid challenging circumstances. There is a Sanskrit word for such heartfelt determination: Sankalpa.
Nehru's space mission started in the same year that India suffered a humiliating setback in a border war with China and came a year after what is widely agreed to be the end of India's failed second five-year plan that moved to set up a steel industry.
Indira's real space odyssey started months after the nuclear tests in April 1974 when the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – set up on Independence Day in 1969 – launched the country's first satellite, Aryabhatta, named after the astronomer credited as the inventor of the 'Zero' symbol that forms the the mathematical basis of all computer science.
Two months after the Aryabhatta launch, Indira Gandhi, already facing street protests over high inflation and unemployment and beset with an adverse court verdict imposed an Emergency rule – said to be the darkest hour of independent India yet. History has strange twists.
Nehru is often slammed for prioritising heavy industry in the second five-year plan. There was indeed an economic mismatch between an agrarian economy and an industrial wannabe.
But we possibly cannot talk of a successful rocket science story by slamming a prime minister who wanted to make steel on a large scale.
No steel. No metallurgy. No rocket. Simple.
Scientific Temper Fuelled Nation-Building
Political lampooning and cartoons of India's space or nuclear programmes as one of an unaffordable luxury have been a common theme in the West, whose technological sanctions against India have shown that there is more to it than bantering humour.
Well-documented research papers show that Nehru believed passionately that problems like poverty and illiteracy could be solved only through a steadfast commitment to science and technology.
For him, there was no contradiction between India being a developing country and pushing the frontiers of science.
The space mission was only a logical extension of his philosophy.
Nehru personally led scientific research as Minister in Charge between 1947 and 1951, when India was still painstakingly building a new republican constitution and nursing the wounds of a bloody Partition. Other prime ministers took the baton from him and carried it forward against all odds.
Scientist Receive A Pittance Against Their Contribution
Rockets, as metaphors go, symbolise a quick take off into soaring skies but the chequered history of India's space missions shows that the ground realities of the programme have been in significant contrast to the image.
The successful Chandrayaan-3 mission to the moon is only the latest in the series of missions during which taunts and setbacks have not been new to scientists slogging to get a fraction of what their counterparts earn in the West.
According to company tracking website Ambition Box, the average ISRO scientist gets an annual gross salary of under Rs 1.5 million, which in US dollar terms is around USD 18,000 which is much less than what an assistant store manager earns in an American McDonald's fast food joint in the US.
Given that these scientists have skills and qualifications that match the requirements at the American space agency NASA, you can be sure it is the commitment to work, the passion to build, and sheer patriotism that drive these people to work hard Former President APJ Abdul Kalam, as a long-time technology administrator, somehow pulled a rabbit out of the hat with his passionate approach to rocket science.
Kalam was one of ISRO's first employees and served as a project director for India's first indigenously designed and produced satellite launch vehicle, SLV-III.
He became a Pied Piper of sorts in attracting advanced scientific talent without dangling paychecks.
No wonder they are talking of Chris Nolan's sci-fi movies like Interstellar having budgets far higher than that of the Rs 615-crore Chandrayaan-3 described as "100 percent India-made".
The Laxman cartoon on a beggarly Indira-led India entering the nuclear club is best clubbed with a quote falsely but famously attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win."
(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)