On Saturday, a rare thing happened: The government issued a statement clarifying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks at the all-party meeting the previous evening. It was to rebut “mischievous interpretation” of his “no intruder in our territory” remark.
This was a first. When was the last time you saw an official statement to clarify what Modi had said? It was always the other way round. Some minister or BJP leader would kick up controversy and the Prime Minister would step in to douse the fire— like Modi’s clarification on the National Register of Citizens (NRC), contradicting Home Minister Amit Shah. The Modi we knew would simply slay those ‘mischievous’ interpreters with such wit and sarcasm that one could hear Fugees playing in the background: killing me softly….with his words.
Remember Modi’s bathing-with-raincoat-on jibe at his predecessor, Manmohan Singh?
The official clarification of Modi’s no-intruder in Ladakh remark had many talking about Singh’s ‘Sharm el-Sheikh’ moment. The furore over the 2009 India-Pakistan joint statement in that Egyptian resort would haunt then-Prime Minister Singh for months. In Modi’s case, however, the BJP is solidly backing him using the old playbook to dub all critics as traitors and anti-national. In Singh’s case, his party, the Congress, had refused to come to his defence.
So, what has changed for Modi? On Saturday morning, in fact, he had an opportunity to put paid to that ‘mischievous’ interpretation when he launched a job scheme for migrant workers in Bihar. He did speak of the Bihar regiment’s valour in Ladakh but left it to his spin doctors to draft a statement about what he meant by ‘no intrusion’ earlier. It’s another matter that this statement from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was of little help to Modi, because it seemed to confirm Chinese transgressions in Pangong Tso and Hot Springs by emphasising that the PM’s no-intruder remark was in the context of Galwan Valley — after 20 Indian soldiers had sacrificed their lives to push back the intruders.
Did the Dragon take Modi for a ride?
Is Modi losing his mojo? Or has the betrayal by his ‘plus one’ friend, China’s Xi Jinping, unnerved him? Neither. Give him an audience — not the questioning kind like Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee — and a mike, and Modi will be back at his eloquent best.
As for his equation with Xi, Doklam would be too fresh in Modi’s memory for him to be charmed by the Chinese despite their 18 meetings.
Let’s not forget that right after getting a renewed mandate in May 2019, the Prime Minister showed he was very much mindful of the Chinese threat. He promoted the so-called ‘Doklam team’ of 2017: then foreign secretary and China expert S. Jaishankar was made external affairs minister; national security adviser Ajit Doval, who played a key role in resolving the Doklam crisis, was elevated to the rank of a Cabinet minister; and, then-Army chief General Bipin Rawat was appointed India’s first chief of defence staff. They were all avid China watchers.
Way back in 2014, Doval said at the Hindustan Times summit that Indian had to be prepared for a two-front war, build deterrence, and that conflict was not an option for its adversaries. By June 2017, then Army chief Rawat was talking about India’s readiness for two-and-a-half front war (Pakistan, China and internal conflicts).
So, did the fabled Jaishankar-Doval-Rawat trinity fail Modi? Did they fail to take note of China’s expansionist designs and readiness for military adventurism? We don’t have enough information in public domain to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Many foreign policy experts are having a hearty laugh today about the number of Xi-Modi meetings. Modi’s critics say that these 18 meetings were just an effort to project Modi in the big league of global leaders—more to impress the domestic audience than to achieve any diplomatic objective. But they probably fail to appreciate the fact that the same showed the Modi’s conscious attempt to keep China engaged. That the dragon still bared its claws is not Modi’s fault. He can be blamed for misjudging the nature of the dragon but not for trying to befriend it, especially when he was trying to tame Pakistan. As someone who can’t claim any expertise in strategic affairs, I wonder what else Modi could have done to engage China, a neighbour bent on using its military and economic prowess for territorial expansion and a Communist regime that finds it a convenient diversion of its domestic public attention from the international isolation over its role in the coronavirus outbreak.
Modi loses the perception battle in Ladakh
Where the Modi government has bungled is in its refusal to come clear on the situation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). It didn’t find Rahul Gandhi’s questions in May about the situation at the LAC worth responding to. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, in fact, legitimised the opposition’s concerns when he admitted in a TV interview, whether inadvertently or deliberately, that a large number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers had gathered at the stand-off site along the LAC. But he refused to give any straight answers to Gandhi, maintaining that he would do that in Parliament. As the opposition kept baiting the government on this issue, the latter just chose to look the other way.
An acknowledgement of the recalcitrant neighbour’s predatory designs wouldn’t have hurt Modi’s image. Burdened by history, the 1962 debacle, Rahul Gandhi wouldn’t have the moral authority, beyond a point, to question Modi government’s failure to rein in the marauding Chinese. But the chest-thumping brigade in the ruling party seemed to have their say as the government went into a denial mode, until the death of 20 Indian soldiers made it impossible to evade questions. Even then the security and political establishment kept quiet about 10 Indian soldiers being in Chinese custody. It was only after they were released that the Army issued a statement, saying that no Indian soldiers were missing in action.
The Chinese intrusion across the LAC — or the ‘perception of the LAC’ — is no secret anymore. Any debate on whether the Prime Minister spoke about no Chinese intrusion in Galwan Valley or in Pangong Tso, too, would only hurt his image. Given that it’s going to be a protracted battle with the Chinese, militarily or diplomatically, Modi had better go public with the situation on the ground. He still commands enough popular faith and authority to swing the public opinion in favour of the government’s move — and even constraints — at the LAC. If a survey were to be conducted today, Narendra Modi would get more votes than anyone as the leader the people trust to tackle the Chinese. Any attempt to obfuscate the facts about a threat to India’s territorial integrity may, however, shake this trust and give an impression of a weak leader hiding his failures.
When demonetisation wreaked havoc in people’s lives in 2016, Modi had played a masterstroke, asking people to bear the pain for 50 days to deliver them the “India of your dreams” and then punish him if he failed. They bore the pain happily and gave him 50 days even though India of their dreams has continued to elude them. The people would give him 500 days or even more to sort out the Chinese at the LAC but Modi must tell them the truth.
Views are personal.