Prime Minister Narendra Modi has demonstrated two opposite sides of his personality. As he wades into his campaign for the 2019 general elections, Modi has repeatedly made charges against “enemy Pakistan”, which serves the BJP well to conflate its belief that Muslims at home as well as those on the other side of the western border cannot be trusted. (The BJP has fielded only one Muslim candidate — Mahfuza Khatun from Jangipur in West Bengal — in the coming Lok Sabha elections.)
At the same time, Modi has maintained a stunned silence on the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in India.
The 30 March anniversary passed with absolutely no mention from anyone in the Delhi establishment. Not from the prime minister or the external affairs minister or home or defence ministers. It’s as if the arrival of the Dalai Lama from Chinese-ruled Tibet in 1959 never happened.
This confirms a huge shift in Modi’s foreign policy thinking on China, which began in April last year when he met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan. It is now becoming increasingly clear, say highly placed sources speaking on the condition of anonymity, that at Wuhan, India and China decided they would not air their differences in public.
The case of the Dalai Lama fell into this category.
The Chinese wanted Delhi not to make any public mention of the Tibetan leadership living in India. Modi is said to have agreed.
The Dalai Lama could still be treated as an honoured guest by the Indian government, but that would be all. He could travel inside and outside the country – as the living incarnation of the Avalokiteśvara; even Modi could not prevent that.
So, when the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India’s Arunachal Pradesh (then called North-East Frontier Agency, or NEFA) came around on March 30, the sound and fury of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections had taken over.
Modi was busy castigating the Congress party for allegedly asking questions on the Balakot air strikes and trying to make them out as “anti-national”; he was obsessing over the evil designs of Pakistan itself and implicitly warning that if it were not for him, India would be over-run both by Muslims and Pakistanis.
On the one hand, Modi was ensuring that the two-nation theory was getting a new life of its own; on the other, he was agreeing with China that the Tibetan leaders in India would be roundly ignored — that they would not matter anymore.
So the Dalai Lama has, indeed, arrived in Delhi on Tuesday, April 2, to attend a conference on ethical and emotional learning, but the venue cannot be farther than South Block in the heart of the capital, where the Prime Minister’s Office is located, or in Lok Kalyan Marg, where Modi lives.
It’s as if Modi wants the Dalai Lama to get in and get out of Delhi as soon as possible. He wants to have nothing to do with him.
Even on Wuhan’s eve, Delhi had sent out word that the Tibetan community could not hold any events or festivities “thanking India” for letting the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees make their home in India since 1959.
Today, the invisibilisation of the Dalai Lama is almost complete in India – a home he has made for the last 60 years.
The tragedy of the Dalai Lama’s situation cannot be measured by emotions of hurt or grievance or sadness. Whether or not the BJP is violating its own much-vaunted “atithi devo bhava” principle, the fact is that the Modi government could have intelligently used the Tibetans as leverage over the Chinese.
The charge that Modi has caved in to the Chinese is an old one. After all, even prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh never met the Dalai Lama publicly – unlike Nehru, who welcomed him to India and gave him a home, or Lal Bahadur Shastri or Indira Gandhi.
But the fact remains that China’s expanding presence in all parts of South Asia, which India considers its traditional sphere of influence, has been synonymous with Modi giving what Beijing has wanted. In the hope that if it gives an inch, it will fight back a yard, the Modi government has allowed China to creep not stealthily, but openly, inside the Indian mainframe.
First, there was the Doklam incursion in 2017, a shock because no one in Delhi could conceive of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) wanting to audaciously build a road in the strategic Chumbi valley in Bhutan and coming so close to Indian territory.
Second, the widening India-China trade deficit has been accompanied by China’s insidious and expanding presence. Trade data from 2017-2018 shows that India imported $76.2 billion worth goods from China, and exported less than half: $33 billion.
On March 19, traders in Delhi’s largest wholesale market, Sadar Bazar, burned Chinese goods like toys, mobile phones, white goods, etc, arguing that these cheap imports were driving them out of business. The drastic step casts a worrying look at the slow destruction of Indian manufacturing because of its own distorted policies. At the same time, traders also argue that boycotting Chinese products is difficult because “very little is made in India”.
Third, in the wake of the Balakot air strikes, China has continued to block the move to have Masood Azhar, whose Jaish-e-Mohammed took responsibility for the Pulwama attack, designated as a global terrorist at the UN Security Council.
If Modi believed that the Wuhan spirit meant that China would also show generosity to its Asian rival, then all the evidence points the other way.
ThePrint’s own China-watcher, Col (retd) Vinayak Bhatt, points out that as the snows melt, the Chinese PLA has returned to building roads near Doklam and even a possible heliport.
If Modi wanted to, he could have shown Xi Jinping that two can play the same game — by meeting and welcoming the Dalai Lama while continuing to promise publicly that Tibet is an alienable part of China. There isn’t much that India can do on the ground, in any case. China’s control of Tibet is far too strong; it has expanded into South Asia in a way that is hardly reversible; and its imprint on Indian trade cannot be overturned in a hurry.
Perhaps, Modi the new Chanakya could have borrowed a leaf or two out of Confucius? The shadow-play is, in any case, a Chinese invention.
At the end of Modi’s tenure, the question remains: What has Modi done to prevent China from further becoming India’s Achilles heel?