Friday, May 26, 2023
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Modi govt needs to come clean on China. India must win information wars too

The Modi govt should not dither in accepting what has happened. A strategic communication is needed to counter China, which is gaining ground with its narrative.

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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. 

Also read: PM Modi’s silence on LAC stand-off is benefiting China. India must change its script

Wrong move

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.

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. 

Also read: Modi’s foreign policy puts Modi first, India second

Cagey MEA

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.

Also read: Xi has thrown the gauntlet at Modi. He can pick it up like Nehru, or try something new

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. 

Also read: How Pakistan created doubt before India woke up to its information war

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.

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.

Views are personal.

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  1. War is the last resort. We need to fight for a cause for justice. Not to prove a point. Mongering for war merely created dysfunctional states like pak, NK, Iraq. Learn from others’ failure and father focus on peoples well being instead.

  2. When was the last time China was not on Indian soil? It has been sitting on Aksai Chin and eastern and south eastern parts of Ladakh (Khurnak fort near Pangong Tso) since 1962. So why does one say that they have not transgressed in our territories? Consider the status today – there is a mythical LAC which is open for everyone’s interpretation. China today is sitting on common areas which their and our army personnel would patrol into with mutual understanding. It has still not transgressed into Indian area which is not common for patrolling (and it won’t even think of doing so, thanks to the might of Indian army).

  3. Much more important than informing the people about LAC realities is informing them about economic realities. Graham Allison devoted the entire first part of his book “Destined for War” to this because he felt that US public was ill informed about economic realities about China. How many people in India know that in 1980 the PPP GDP of China was less than that of India( $ 298 and $386 million respectively). At the end of the Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee (India Shining) eras in 2005 the PPP GDP of China was 1.9 times more than that of India.At the start of Modi’s period in 2015 it was 2.37 times that of India and at the start of Modi’s second term in 2018 it was 2.43 times that of India ($25.313.27 and $10401.44 million respectively) and the gap between India and China is widening relentlessly. An article “Seeing Beyond The Bubble in which I had drawn attention to these realities was not published by any online Media including the Print nor have any of these media published their own comparative studies of the period between 1980 when PPP GDP of China was less than that of India to Present when it is more than double that of India. The Nominal GDP of Chinaat present is five times that of India. Without a proper appraisal of economic realities the people are in for a rude shock.

  4. You can see the Wikipedia page on ‘2020 China-India skirmishes’. The only citation of you that appears from you is on 30 June. We had give up on you. You were behind the curve. Thankfully, The Print also published Lt. Gen. Panag, who gave us the facts.

  5. Snehesh, with all due respect, you were the only one that was falling for the Indian government propaganda. Nobody else did.

  6. Absolutely correct. China has been expanding into Indian Territory and our PM and his party is busy fighting the opposition. Already Chinese army is inside Indian Territory over so many point but instead of trying to get our land back govt us not even admitting any incursions. History will never forgive Modi govt for this.

  7. Archis Mohan, Ankur Bhardwaj and Mihir Sharma ( ex ) are three journalists from the Business Standard stable whose tweets I read together regularly. 2. Psy ops, mind games, etc, one does not understand. Truth alone matters. If the government will not furnish it, intrepid journalists should hunt and fish to deliver it to readers / viewers.

  8. The problem is with highly centralised nature of decision making in this government. Even the ministers dare not make a statement without the nod of the PM or Amit Shah, what to say of spokes persons of defence or MEA? Since these two seem to be working without diverse inputs, or they are unable to handle all the inputs, we the Indians are mislead, and the enemy takes advantage of the silence of Indian leadership. When dealing with the Chinese not only the words uttered matter, even the silences matter. India should start a diplomatic offensive against china, which has committed enough sins in its foreign relations. India should also conduct a PR blitzkreig.

  9. Too many exerts on ‘Te Print’ Like they know everything.Just shut up and wait for government to inform us.

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