New Delhi — India said Wednesday that it has successfully test-fired an anti-satellite weapon in an unexpected announcement just weeks before a general election. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an address broadcast live that Indian scientists had earlier destroyed a low earth orbit satellite with a missile, demonstrating India’s capacity as a “space power” alongside the U.S., Russia and China.
The announcement is Modi’s latest bid to flex India’s military muscle and shore-up his own image as a defender of the nation as his party seeks to retain power in polls beginning April 11.
“A while ago our scientists shot down a live satellite at a low-earth orbit,” Modi said in his address. “This is a proud moment for India.”
After 40 Indian soldiers were killed in a February suicide bombing in disputed Kashmir, India said it retaliated with a “surgical strike” on a purported terrorist camp deep inside Pakistani territory.
Afterward in an air skirmish, Pakistan shot down one of India’s Soviet-era fighter jets and captured the pilot, prompting scrutiny of India’s aging military hardware.
Pakistan released the pilot the next day as a “peace gesture,” bringing the nuclear-armed south Asian neighbors back from the brink of full scale war. The two countries have fought three wars since 1947 over Kashmir — a mountainous region divided between them but claimed in its entirety by both.
CBS News’ Arshad Zargar reported that many analysts in India believe Modi, who had appeared to be on the back foot politically after a series of state election losses for his party, has shifted his campaign strategy from a focus on national development, to a platform focused on national security.
“The airstrikes on Pakistan will likely boost Modi’s election prospects,” Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at The Wilson Center, a Washington-based think-tank, told Zargar earlier this month.
Respected Indian news editor Raju Narisetti, now a professor at Columbia Journalism School in New York, told CBS News that Modi’s campaign would likely push the case “that India simply needs a strong and decisive leader at the helm.”
Modi’s announcement on Wednesday of the satellite shoot-down was clearly the latest effort to bolster that perception of a strong, defense-minded leader.