Among the many things that the 2019 Balakot incident has taught us is the importance of having a proper communication mechanism and an able machinery to counter the onslaught of psychological operations, or psyops, by the enemy.
However, there is a lot we still need to learn, as the stand-off with China in Ladakh and the narrative buildup in its aftermath show. The biggest border turmoil since the 1999 Kargil War has exposed India’s lack of proper and cohesive communication in the event of a military tension.
Instead of being on the defensive, the Narendra Modi government and the military leadership should be officially speaking against Chinese transgressions in Ladakh and the northeast. Nothing less would help form a global opinion against China’s blatant attempt to usurp territories like a bully.
Since the tensions first came to light in early May, the government, both at the political and bureaucratic level, has been trying to play down the scope, extent and seriousness of the situation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Even the Army has been on silent mode since, claiming that the ball is in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)’s court.
Army chief Gen. M.M. Naravane played down the developments in mid-May, saying the clashes in Pangong Tso and Sikkim were not linked, and everything was being resolved as per the established protocols and strategic guidelines given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the two informal India-China summits — in Wuhan and Mamallapuram.
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His statement came at a time when journalists had started receiving inputs from within the defence and security establishment about transgressions in multiple places in Ladakh and the situation being much more serious than what the authorities wanted everyone to believe.
As days passed and more information started entering public domain, sources say the Modi government called a high-level meeting on 18 May.
It was only then that the official communication machinery slowly started coming into action. However, there was still no attempt to clearly state what the Chinese were up to and how bad or manageable the situation was.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has been equally defensive and edgy about making clear statements regarding the Chinese transgressions. Playing around with words like “across the LAC” and not directly stating the facts on the ground, was a clear sign of defensiveness, which is counterproductive, especially when you are negotiating.
The MEA was responding more to the Chinese foreign ministry’s onslaught instead of establishing its own narrative first.
The Chinese have gone on the offensive with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Foreign Office being vocal and attempting to paint themselves as the victim rather than the aggressor.
The Global Times has been regularly dishing out propaganda, which many Indians have been amusingly countering on Twitter, not realising that they are only spreading the Chinese propaganda further. And since Twitter is banned in China, the counter is not seen by the Chinese population, barring the few who have been allowed access by the State.
This is where another problem lies. While the Chinese propaganda is aimed at Indians, the counter narrative by India is also aimed at Indians.
Therefore, it’s best if the Modi government did not dither in accepting what has happened at the LAC. Despite all political and ideological differences, India rallies as one during a national challenge.
China took advantage
While India resorted to silence and playing things down, the Chinese transgressed the LAC at multiple locations, deploying a large number of troops and equipment to forward locations at the border.
By late May, satellite images were out, detailing the gun positions and buildup of the Chinese. Many in the government were surprised by the way the artillery guns and other equipment were positioned, saying it seemed like the Chinese had done it purposely to ensure the satellites picked them up.
The common belief appeared to be holding true when the Chinese inscribed a massive Mandarin symbol and a map of China on the ground they occupied within the Indian side of the LAC in Pangong Tso.
Evidently, the Chinese were also playing with the mind of the Indians. Perhaps they felt this would put pressure on the government, which has still not accepted intrusion into Indian territory.
I have earlier argued that those who claim there is a “difference in perception” actually play into the Chinese hands.
Former Northern Army Commander Lt Gen. D.S. Hooda has aptly said that tiptoeing around China’s control of Indian territory won’t make the problem go away.
Trust the media
Despite the information blackout on the LAC stand-off, many Indian journalists still managed to report on the tensions and bring to light the seriousness of the matter.
But the information blackout from the government meant that some of the media reports ended up either being overtly sensational or underplaying the situation to suggest that all was well.
The government must realise that the media is a force enhancer and it should be regularly briefed, especially the journalists covering the stand-off. It can be off the record too. This way, it won’t have to appoint a top Indian diplomat to gather select journalists covering the BJP at a Union minister’s house and brief them on the Ladakh issue.
With MoD beat and MEA beat journalists asking too many questions on Chinese intrusions, the government now scampering to organise debriefings for select journalists on the BJP beat.
A tangle web we weave…
— Archis Mohan अर्चिस (@ArchisMohan) June 26, 2020
It’s not surprising then that a perception has gone out that the authorities are hiding something. The Modi government must get its narrative-setting act together. There needs to be a focused strategic communication to counter China, which is gaining ground with its narrative.
Clear communication will restrict adversaries from profiteering from any kind of misunderstanding, as happened after Prime Minister Modi’s statement on the stand-off at the all-party meeting on 19 June, which had to be clarified a day later.
The three-day sequence of events between Balakot air strike and the joint press conference by the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force last year was a reminder that in today’s world, an information war is equally important.
In the 60-plus hours between the strikes and the press conference, a lot of doubts and counter-narratives had already crept in before the Indian authorities woke up to the fact that Pakistan was outsmarting them on this front.
Now, we must not let the Chinese outsmart us, be it on the ground or in terms of mind games.
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