Taking both space diplomacy and India’s outreach to the neighbours into a “new orbit”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a unique joint videoconference of the leaders of all SAARC countries, apart from Pakistan who had declined to join the South Asia satellite programme, shortly after the successful launch of the GSLV GSAT 9.
“The South Asia satellite demonstrates that our collective choices for our citizens will bring us together for cooperation, not conflict; development, not destruction; and prosperity, not poverty,” Mr. Modi told the leaders on the videoconference, including Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bhutan PM Tshering Tobgay, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen, Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena. Ambassadors of all six nations were also invited to witness the lift-off at ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota.
The video-conference, which had not been declared prior to the event, was announced by PM Modi as a “surprise” barely moments after he congratulated ISRO scientists for the successful launch on twitter.
“The support and presence of these leaders will add even more joy in the hearts & minds of our region,” Mr. Modi said, adding, “We are a united family of South Asian countries, united in our pursuit of peace, progress & prosperity of our region & the entire humankind.
Speaking by turn the other leaders congratulated India for its technological success as well as Mr. Modi personally for turning his “vision to reality” by seeing the Rs. 450 crore launch through.
“I am grateful to PM Modi and the people of India for the very special gift to the South Asian region and compliment the PM and India’s visionary ‘Neighbourhood first’ policy,” said Maldivian President Yameen. “The launch of the South Asia satellite is historic for the world as this is the first time a country has launched a satellite for the free use of its neighbours,” added Bhutan PM Tobgay, calling it an “impressive milestone in regional cooperation.”
Nepal’s PM particularly noted the satellite’s role in developing communications in his country’s mountainous and remote areas. Both Bangladesh PM Hasina and Sri Lankan President Sirisena also praised the potential uses of the GSLV GSAT 9 in meeting developmental needs in the areas of tele-medicine, tele-education, banking and television KU-band broadcasting opportunities.
Mr. Modi had proposed the plan for the shared satellite as a gift to the neighbourhood, during the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in 2014. However, after Pakistan pulled out of the project, it was called the “South Asia satellite” rather than the SAARC satellite.
Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Nafees Zakaria said the country was initially “keen to participate in the project”, but claimed “India was not willing to develop the project on a collaborative basis”.
Referring to Pakistan’s refusal to also join India’s proposal of a SAARC motor vehicle agreement that had stopped Afghanistan from being linked to it, Afghan President Ghani said in his address on the videoconference that “If cooperation through land is not possible, it is certainly possible through sky and we are confident that [South Asia] will integrate.”
The successful launch is seen as a success for both the government’s declared objective of working with SAARC countries “minus Pakistan” if it refused to cooperate, as well as an important step in South Asian connectivity just ahead of the major Belt and Road forum in China that India is staying out of, but other South Asian countries have joined.
“This launch tells us that even the sky is not the limit when it comes to regional cooperation,” PM Modi said as he thanked the leaders for joining him in the celebration of the GSLV launch.