At the height of the Doklam stand-off in July 2017, a powerful functionary of the Prime Minister’s Office, now a retired IAS officer, called up a senior journalist of a leading English newspaper.
“Listen, you guys are unnecessarily playing up Doklam stories on the front page every day. It’s a matter of national security,” the bureaucrat told the journalist. When the latter argued that it was unfair to expect the media not to report what was happening in Doklam, the PMO officer snapped, “But it can be a single column on some inside page. Why is it a front page story every day? Do you want to play with national security?”
Restraint during Doklam
I can’t share the rest of the conversation or what happened after that. It would be unfair to the source of this information. But this telephonic talk gives a glimpse of how the Narendra Modi government wanted to play down the seriousness of the Doklam crisis to prevent the ever-ready jingoistic brigade from scuttling the dialogue process.
Then external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had told the Rajya Sabha that patience and bhasha sanyam or restraint in language was very important to resolve the stand-off. “Even after war, there has to be a dialogue. So have dialogue without a war,” she had said.
There was also a tight leash on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) warriors who had to stick to the briefs given by the government: basically, no chest-thumping on camera. It turned out to be a prudent and successful strategy.
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But chest-thumping ministers go after China
Cut to June 2020. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched ‘surgical’ and air strikes to punish Pakistan in 2016 and 2019, his ministers are now outdoing him in pounding China with one verbal strike after another.
Communications and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad Thursday declared India’s “digital strike” through a ban on 59 Chinese apps. “We will not make any compromise on Bharat’s integrity, Bharat’s sovereignty and Bharat’s security,” he thundered. The next morning came the ‘thermal and solar strikes’ from power minister R.K. Singh who announced that India won’t import equipment from China. Highways minister Nitin Gadkari struck with a road roller, declaring no Chinese companies will be allowed in highway projects in India. Gadkari’s deputy, General VK Singh (retd), had already given a clarion call: “Let’s hurt them economically. Other things will follow.” In TV studios, BJP warriors are not tired of reminding everyone of the 1962 debacle and of how Modi is not Jawaharlal Nehru.
Addressing the BJP’s virtual rallies, home minister Amit Shah has been reminding people of surgical and air strikes against Pakistan to emphasize that PM Modi is “unlike previous PMs” and anybody who encroaches India’s border will be punished.
How Nehru succumbed to war hysteria
So, what has changed since Doklam? Is it the seriousness of the violation of the Line of Actual Control by the Chinese army? Economic retribution against China is, of course, one of the options to many strategic affairs experts who recommend to make China see reason and back off. But union ministers thumping their chests everyday runs the risk of whipping up war hysteria. Unless, of course, these ministers know what we don’t—that the PM has made up his mind to exercise military options to push back the Chinese intruders.
As ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta noted in episode 510 of #CuttheClutter, in 1962, then PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision to go to war with China at a time when he knew the Army wasn’t ready was made under heavy public pressure. Nehru’s decision was made out of exasperation because he was harassed by his critics to go to war.
In 2020, Modi is also facing flak from the opposition Congress that is daring him to expel the Chinese intruders even at the risk of a full-fledged war. It sees in the LAC stand-off an opportunity to divest Modi of his USP or the unique selling proposition—his assiduously crafted image as a strong and decisive leader.
But is the Congress’ onslaught credible enough to make the Prime Minister insecure? There is no evidence as yet to suggest that people are losing faith in Modi’s current strategy of military and diplomatic negotiations to resolve the crisis at the LAC. As per an IANS-CVoter snap poll, 73.6 per cent people trust the Modi government on national security issues, as against 16.7 per cent who trust the opposition. Many of us take such surveys with a pinch of salt but this one doesn’t sound counter-intuitive.
As Asim Ali and Ankita Barthwal, research associates at the Centre for Policy Research, wrote in an article in ThePrint, the BJP so strongly owns the issue of national security that it’s unlikely to face any political consequences of the government’s ‘blunders’ in dealing with China—unless the LAC standoff escalates further.
Modi needs to see beyond domestic politics
PM Modi has no compulsions to react under pressure, as Nehru did. The first time the opposition seemed to get under his skin was when he impulsively dismissed any Chinese intrusion at an all-party meeting. He has recovered fast. He would rather communicate directly with the people, instead of indulging his critics and getting caught in specifics. On Friday, through his address to the soldiers in Ladakh, he sent out a firm message to an “expansionist” China—and thus allayed the concerns of his happy-to-be-gullible constituents who needed some talking points.
Going further, the Prime Minister needs to be totally unencumbered by domestic political compulsions as he focuses on India’s strategic response to China’s daredevilry. That’s where his ministers, as also the economic nationalists in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), may end up tying him in knots. In their zeal to show off India’s ability to hurt China economically, they may end up creating war hysteria, in which, boycotting Chinese goods and banning Chinese companies is not good enough. For the Modi era ‘patriots’, ‘surgical’ and cross-border air strikes are the new yardsticks and they would expect no less vis-à-vis China.
These chest-thumping ministers may end up driving the Prime Minister into a corner where India’s strategic options get tied to his political image. If that happens, the country—as also the BJP—may find itself in uncharted waters.
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