The Modi government's China policy has to serve India's national interest
The blinkered approach of the government and its controlled media to paint all opposition as anti-national is absurd and dangerous in a democracy. Modi will do well to take a leaf out of Vajpayee’s book during the Kargil conflict and call an all-party meeting and brief the political leadership of the evolving situation and work on a unified response to evict the Chinese from Indian land through military and diplomatic means.
This Modi government, which leaves no opportunity to remind us of its machismo à la the famed 56-inch chest of its leader, now finds itself between the devil and the deep sea. Its wonderfully woven but vacuous tale of “all is well” on the LAC—peddled with practised chest-thumping and the bumptious bluster of TV anchors—was rudely punctured by the shocking news of the martyrdom of the commanding officer of the Bihar Regiment and 20 of its soldiers at the hands of the Chinese in the icy cold climes of the Gulwan valley on the 15th of June.
This was not part of the script; it was outrageous—this was the first time that there had been a casualty on the Indo-China boundary (LAC) in 45 years, a line that is disputed but remarkably peaceful with not a single shot fired in more than four decades.
On 16th June, the grim news of the killing of Indian braves was gingerly reported by the media in the afternoon; the army confirmed by the evening that at least 20 men had succumbed to injuries sustained in violent clashes with the Chinese. The carefully crafted smokescreen of normalcy by a government that basks in infallibility—the studied downplaying, for many weeks together, of the actual situation in Ladakh and other areas along the LAC—is now gone with the wind. The haze has cleared somewhat even for people who were lulled into a false sense of calm by the masterful management of the news cycle by the incumbent government. The severity of the clash with a purportedly retreating army, and the steep number of casualties, is akin to a hard hammer-stroke of truth on the anvil of propaganda.
We are a gullible people; many of us were taken in by the display of shallow valour in TV studios where war games were being staged with fiery panellists belabouring the point that this is a new India, not the India of 1962. There were hyped reports that China has been forced to withdraw. After the 6th June high-level meeting between the military commanders of both sides, the so-called nationalist media was serving “de-escalation” to the public with all the condiments it could muster from the playbook. This meticulous control of information, the doctoring of the narrative with malicious deception was a thing of beauty while it lasted. The pliant media, busy pandering to the party in power, refused to question the government, as always, and was focused on the “treachery” of the opposition. So, everything looked hunky-dory. Then the Chinese had to spoil it all by throwing a spanner in the works.
There may be many reasons why China has acted in a manner that smacks of desperation. In recent months, China has faced international opprobrium for its disastrous handling of the COVID-19 crisis and now will possibly be facing an international probe into its conduct. In the least, its prestige in the world has taken a severe beating. Its relationship with the USA has hit an all-time low with an ongoing trade war and Trump’s vocal hostility to China. China has faced flak over its arm-twisting of Hong Kong. China’s belligerence in the South and East China Sea—which it treats as its own backyard while refusing to recognise it as Global Commons—and its ill design over Taiwan have long been the bane of peace in the region. The recent sinking of a Vietnamese vessel by China was met with universal condemnation. Over the years, China’s ties with Australia and Japan have come under severe strain. What has compounded China’s troubles is its cooling economy. Internally, all is perhaps not well in the communist party, with Xi Jinping rumoured to be losing his grip on power.
China’s recent adventures in India may well be a ploy to distract its own population from mounting troubles and stage a show of power. Hence, it may be argued that the present crisis has many authors. India has edged closer to the USA in what may be described as a rupture of its long-held stance of non-alignment and China sees this as a long-term threat. However, the immediate provocation for aggressive posturing by China seems to be the shoring up of infrastructure by India on its side of the LAC. The many roads, bridges, and airstrips that India has been building along the LAC give India a parity with China in terms of its ability to mobilize men, machinery and heavy equipment should the need arise. China sees this new development as upsetting the balance of power and hence wishes to stop India from consolidating.
While there were disturbing signals all through May, the Modi government was steadfastly resolute in its denials. The incursions by the Chinese were no longer mere incursions. It was evident that China had broken the pattern. In the past their muscle-flexing was predictable: they would intrude in the Indian side of the Line of Actual control with a patrolling party and eventually go back. However, since the Doklam stand-off in 2017, the Chinese incursions have been more acute and with an intent to stay. While the Doklam crisis was resolved peacefully with both sides withdrawing, it became quite clear that there has been a palpable shift in the Chinese attitude—there has been since new-found aggression, a visible show of strength, aimed at India and her neighbours.
The present imbroglio is vastly different as it is not confined to a single sector. Since May, the Chinese have alarmingly entered Indian-held territory at many points along the LAC and set up—as satellite imagery had shown several weeks ago—permanent structures. Gulwan Valley, Hot springs, and Pangong Tso Lake are known areas in Ladakh with Chinese presence. More alarming is the fact that even along the Sikkim-China international border, where there has been no previous dispute, the Chinese have gallivanted to Naku la and clashed with Indian soldiers there.
This is not the India of 1962. Our economy is strong and our military capable; moreover, both China and India are nuclear powers. 2020 will be an entirely different story, should it come to war, than the abject defeat we had to face in 1962. However, it is important to learn from history and not make the same mistakes again. We need to trust our strength, and most importantly need to have faith in the resilience of our democracy. There is no need for an unwarranted veil of secrecy, duplicity, or deception by the government. We must embrace the truth—so what if it is bitter— and fight as one nation.
Unfortunately, for all the grand-standing, Modi’s China policy has not been quite different from his bête noire, Nehru. Nehru got duped by homilies like “Hindi-Cheeni bhai bhai” and did not take the Chinese threat seriously until it was too late. Modi, too, has relied more on shadow than substance in his dealings with China so far—there has been a lot of fluff, photo-ops, atmospherics, hug-diplomacy but precious little goodwill or trust-building. India shares a long border—close to 4000 km—with China, and most of it is disputed. A mechanism to settle the boundary has been in place for almost 30 years but the pace of talks is frustratingly slow: it is as though there is no will on the part of China to resolve disputes. Its current posture perhaps betrays its intentions.
The need of the hour is transparency on the part of our government; the nation deserves the truth and not stories tailor-made for political consumption. All the failings of his China policy notwithstanding, Nehru never kept the opposition in the dark: the record of parliamentary debates will attest to this. Therefore, we need to know categorically from the government how much Indian territory the Chinese have occupied since May. In moments of national crisis, it becomes the responsibility of the incumbent government to unite all parties and factions.
The blinkered approach of the government and its controlled media to paint all opposition as anti-national is absurd and dangerous in a democracy. Modi will do well to take a leaf out of Vajpayee’s book during the Kargil conflict and call an all-party meeting and brief the political leadership of the evolving situation and work on a unified response—obviously operational details don’t have to be shared but a broad framework of how the Chinese might be evicted from Indian land through military and diplomatic means needs to be agreed upon. Our national interest, especially our territorial integrity, cannot be held hostage to the vicissitudes of Modi’s charm, or the necessity of the BJP to keep it intact. Leadership in a democracy ought to be is more about courage and honesty than infallibility.