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Congress wants to pin Modi down on China issue. It’s holding the wrong end of the stick

For a debate in Parliament, Congress-led opposition is focusing on the status of India-China border – a historic dispute which isn’t a making of the Modi government.

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Rahul Gandhi, who is leading the Bharat Jodo Yatra, has increased the intensity of his attack on the Narendra Modi government for its handling of the border dispute with China. Congress has been accusing PM Modi for not naming and shaming China for its military-backed border diplomacy. Gandhi and his party leaders including president Mallikarjun Kharge, P. Chidambaram, Manish Tewari, Jairam Ramesh and Pawan Khera are doing their best to provoke Modi and his Cabinet colleagues to engage in the debate, inside and outside Parliament, over India’s border dispute with China. Even Congress’s junior spokesperson Supriya Shrinate is telling Modi to not be scared and speak up before China – “Dariye mat, China ke saamne boliye.”

But the Modi government and the BJP have so far refused to take the bait.

They are cautious and cleverly diverting the China border issue because they feel they are on a strong wicket vis-à-vis Congress. A powerful BJP leader told me off the record, “The Congress is so belligerent and severe. Now, expect the reactions too.”

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar have given statements in Parliament but Congress’ Jairam Ramesh has been pursuing the matter by quizzing the government over lack of certain actions.

“In the ongoing session of parliament, Nehru’s memories have come alive. The Modi government is not going to allow China pe Charcha,” said a senior BJP leader, adding, “Modi is not Nehru.”

On 12 October 1962, Nehru had told reporters that he had directed the Indian Army ‘to free our territory in the northeast frontier’, which China “misinterpreted” as India declaring war against it. Nehru was drawn into the debate over the border dispute and the Chinese took advantage of it, eventually, and defeated India in the 1962 war.

Also read: From clash at Longju to ‘Operation Leghorn’, how skirmishes built up to 1962 India-China war 

No room for a debate now 

Congress’s energy derives from PM’s remarks at the all-party meeting on China on 19 June 2020 when Modi said, “Na koi wahan hamari seema mein ghus aaya hai, na hi koi ghusa hua hai, na hi hamari koi post kisi dusre ke kabze mein hain (No one has intruded and nor is anyone intruding, nor has any post been captured by someone).” The remarks were carried live on television. Since then, the Congress wants to establish in Parliament that China has gained from Modi’s statement, which the party says has weakened Indian position in negotiations over the serious border transgressions.

The PM’s office later issued a clarification on Modi’s statement but it seems the Congress wants to settle scores about the China chapter of the Nehru era.

When so many diplomatic balls are in the air in the Indo-Pacific region, the government doesn’t find the current time suitable to debate the border issue. In the changing world order when the Russia-Ukraine war is on, when China is witnessing new Covid threats, when India is trying to balance Russia, China and US positions to its advantage, when the Taiwan issue is hot and under sharp global focus and when the world is struggling to emerge from post-Covid economic issues, this conservative Modi government is most unlikely to show any leniency to accommodate the Congress’s demand.

More so after Rahul Gandhi’s use of the term “peet rahe” (beating) for Chinese soldiers without adding that Indian soldiers stood their ground and forced them to retreat and Kharge comparing PM Modi to a “mouse”, the government got the excuse to dismiss Congress’s demand.

Truth is that even without Rahul’s blunder, the government is too strong to let Congress set the agenda in Parliament, and would not have agreed for the debate.

“Vo zamana gaya,” says a senior BJP leader when asked why can’t ministers meet the Congress and other opposition leaders behind the scenes and brief them. “In the UPA government we used to do match-fixing and meet the opposition leaders and cool them down days before Parliament debate on sensitive issues were scheduled,” said a former minister in the UPA government while discussing merits of the debate in Parliament.

In Nehru’s era, the debates were on the floor of the House and not on social media. Now, memes, short videos, tweets, and racy bytes can be edited out of context of any statement or remark by both sides and made viral even before any supposed meeting between the ministers and Congress leaders get over. The Indian armed forces will be the unintended victims on social media if the debate or banter becomes an excuse to score points. Nobody trusts anyone in New Delhi’s no-holds-barred politics anymore. The breakdown of formal relationships is more between Congress and the government. Other parties of consequence are either openly or secretly having some communication with the government. The Congress is raking up this issue also because it wants Modi to have a reality check before he uses India’s G20 leadership to enhance his global reach.

According to the data tabled in Parliament, there were more than 400 border violations by the PLA in 2015. It increased to 600 in 2019 on the 3488- km-long India-China border. When Congress demands urgent debate in Parliament, it certainly looks legitimate and serious as people in a democracy have the right to know, but this is one issue which carries too many historical contexts.

And who doesn’t realise that the Congress knows this game better than the BJP? They have had total, sole, and uninterrupted control of this most historic and unresolved border dispute between India and China from 1947 to 1977, 1980-89, 1991-96 and 2004-2014. Shivsankar Menon and many other dignitaries know the history of 54 years of Congress government in dealing with China. This massive institutional memory of dealing with China gives them the edge that no other party has.

Congress leaders have done it all, and seen much more.

The border troubles are not much different in 2022 from 2013 when the Congress was in power. 

Also read: A ‘normal’ LAC won’t end troubles for India. Shift focus to China’s dominance in Asia

Congress is holding the wrong end of the stick

After 1962, it’s a known reality that all governments in New Delhi have been politically vulnerable, at all times, when PLA soldiers did mischief at the border. The Himalayan border area has been a live theatre where small skits have played out without bloodshed, but it makes headlines and fodder for domestic politics when the actions at borders, routine or serious, get leaked or when one of the stakeholders decides to make it public for its own advantage. Beijing has got the upper hand because public sensitivity on the issue and vulnerability of the rulers in New Delhi is much higher than it is in Beijing. The Modi government is trying to change this psychological leverage that China has been using and enjoying.

The Chinese want to keep tension simmering on low heat to its exclusive advantage.

Many retired senior Army officers would vouch that for decades, they had two types of reporting of hundreds of local-level fights and clashes at the India-China border. One through formal channels and another through informal channels. On the border area, the G-O-C in Command never liked clashes because he would be made responsible for it at the Army headquarters. Maintaining “peace and tranquility” was the political goals of both sides for a couple of decades. Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the LAC set standard operating procedures and stood the test of time but through it China “bought time” and went on to develop strategic infrastructure on its side of the border much faster than India.

The BJP is making it a big political issue that the Congress government didn’t develop infrastructure in border areas faster when borders were relatively peaceful as the Chinese wanted to be. Precisely this is the bone of contention between BJP and Congress. Congress’s weak link of its handling of the border dispute is A.K. Antony’s statement in Parliament in 2013. He has admitted that earlier governments thought no development in border areas was the best defence against China.

BJP thinks the “soft approach” of Congress towards China to keep the borders calm has been exploited by China to develop infrastructure on their side of the border areas. This is debatable, though. The Congress strategy was a demand of global trends of that era. It reflected Indian priorities of those times.

While raking up the China border dispute, the Congress is keeping its goal too high when it challenges Modi on his core identity. Modi has invested his entire life in building his nationalist image. Surely, Galwan and Tawang clashes are not normal, and it’s also undeniable that China is flexing its muscles and Modi has a lot to answer for. But, instead of “Chinese digressions”, the Congress should have demanded debate on national security issues. The government is getting away easily, probably, because the opposition is dubbing the demand with focus on the status of India-China border – the historic dispute which isn’t a making of the Modi government.

In the past, all attempts to settle border disputes have failed. Both sides have not given their official claims of the entire border, nor have official maps been exchanged. The government and Congress’ fight is most unfortunate because as Jaishankar told Parliament, “Today we have a deployment of the Indian Army on the China border that we have never had. It is done in order to counter Chinese deployment which has been scaled up massively since 2020.”

When China is steadily increasing use of its military power to press territorial claims, India will have to increase its spending in billions of dollars to defend itself at the cost of its developmental goals. That’s why Parliament debate to pin Modi down can wait.

Sheela Bhatt is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @sheela2010. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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