The year 2020 is upending a political cliché – that the conservative Right is the best guarantor of national security. The ideologically awkward but artful dodging that the Indian conservatives are engaging in on the issue of India-China stand-offs in the Ladakh area shows they have allowed not only partisanship but also wooly-headedness to override any national security concerns.
In the parallel universe of Twitter, India’s Right-leaning handles gave up their long-held ideological convictions, and, in the last 72 hours, have also suspended their common sense. Once it was decided to give the Narendra Modi government a free pass on the question of a probable Chinese incursion across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), now every Congress leader – from Nehru to Manmohan Singh – would be blamed for seceding territory to China.
Not an inch of Doklam or Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh was ceded to China by Modi Govt, whereas your Nehru gave 37000 SQ KM Aksai Chin Plateau equivalent to a Switzerland-size land to China without any resistance in 1962 https://t.co/Kqc7jRlsTm
— Rishi Bagree 🇮🇳 (@rishibagree) May 29, 2020
Whoa! Thread. https://t.co/jTXqxDfJST
— 𝕭𝖆𝖗𝖇𝖆𝖗𝖎𝖆𝖓 𝕴𝖓𝖉𝖎𝖆𝖓 🍷 (@barbarindian) May 29, 2020
Are you really a conservative?
As reports emerged about China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) having allegedly parked its troops on Indian territory in Ladakh, many in the Indian Right chose to completely deny it.
And in a couple of days, as the Indian establishment began to signal that everything was not okay along the border, some such as national security analyst Nitin Gokhale cited an ambiguous statement by the spokesperson of China’s foreign affairs ministry to argue that now our northern neighbours were “de-escalating”. Others were confused by this stance:
Here’s a dumb question from me: If there’s no PLA on India’s side of the LAC, what exactly are we discussing with China through diplomatic and military channels?
— Ananth Krishnan (@ananthkrishnan) May 30, 2020
Meanwhile, Indian defence officials were still warning against reading “too much” into the statements made by the Chinese foreign ministry.
If this wasn’t enough, soon began the game of satellite imagery. While gathering intelligence via open-source satellite images requires a whole set of skills, the Indian Right had managed to produce experts overnight.
Although, there were some with the actual know-how to read satellite imagery, and said it was possible that the Chinese had not crossed over to the Indian side. There were other experts who pointed out the discrepancy between reports and the conclusions being drawn from satellite imagery.
Two tweets by @Cold_Peace_ written within a space of one minute. Look at the difference in engagement levels. I am being bombarded with the first (chronologically) tweet, not the second. @Cold_Peace_, like all of us, is trying to understand. Don’t use him selectively. pic.twitter.com/UkLVuuaMJP
— Kunal Singh (@d_extrovert) May 29, 2020
My question on this report, which contradicts much of the reporting from India’s defense reporters so far, is why, after PM Modi’s meetings with the military, the Government of India stated that China must “withdraw to restore the status quo” if the status quo was never changed? https://t.co/AhHWh3m7HF
— Vipin Narang (@NarangVipin) May 29, 2020
But who cares about caveats and minor discrepancies? A large section of the conservatives chose to just jump on the bandwagon that no incursion had happened.
The issue here isn’t whether the Chinese have crossed the LAC or not. The question is how do conservatives not go berserk at even the remotest mention of India losing its territory? The idea runs against every grain of national security-nuclear weapons loving conservatives.
Territorial integrity is sacred for every nationalist. After all, isn’t it the love for territory that is supposed to drive our policies in Kashmir?
Fait accompli or a figment of imagination?
Since the reports of Chinese incursion started to pour in, scholars of security studies have hotly debated the possibility of India having undergone a “fait accompli”, a concept of territorial conquest developed by Georgia State University scholar Dan Altman.
During a fait accompli, a country conducts territorial conquest by targeting a small territory of the adversary, which usually has a “low population” and the absence of a “defending military garrison”. The aim is to capture territory in a way that reduces the risk of war, according to Altman.
So, on the one hand, we had scholars debating the possible Indian response in case it had undergone a fait accompli, and on the other hand, a large section of India’s Right-wing claiming that there is no way Chinese troops have pitched tents on India territory.
One would expect that people who adore the idea of destroying Pakistan would at least engage with such strategising regarding a probable Indian military response. For them, even the possibility of territorial loss is unacceptable. It is ironic that the same group that supports the government’s quest to take back Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, would stay silent during a possible territorial incursion by the other neighbour. Much like everything in foreign policy, the answer to how the Indian Right got here lies in domestic politics.
Pakistan on your mind
For the past few years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government have projected the idea of a self-sufficient or ‘atmanirbhar’ India, especially when it comes to national security. “India is strongest under the leadership of PM Modi,” said Home Minister Amit Shah in October 2019.
The overarching claim by the Modi government is that not only can India manage its own security, but no other power would dare to harm us in a serious way. After the Pulwama and Uri attacks, Modi’s India did not turn to the United States but launched strikes as a deterrent.
The problem is the Right-wing’s Pakistan fixation. Several scholars who study Pakistan have pointed to how the country’s political and strategic elite spends a disproportionate amount of time talking about India. This has spoilt the Indian Right, made it lazy, and eroded its ability to analyse an adversary.
When US President Donald Trump proposed to mediate between India and China, a flurry of Right-leaning journalists such as Smita Prakash talked about how the “middle kingdom” being equated to India would not go down well with Beijing.
Wonder how Beijing will react to this ‘offer’? Basically it means Potus is equating in some ways, the status of India and China. India will probably not react at all, or at best give a boilerplate response. Beijing will not be happy. Has a mai-baap complex https://t.co/5xG5U71ZmP
— Smita Prakash (@smitaprakash) May 27, 2020
The obsession with Pakistan is such that news anchor Navika Kumar called China’s PLA the “Pakistan Liberation Army”.
The Indian conservatives have begun to see China exactly how they see Pakistan – a country obsessed only with India. And it couldn’t be any further from the truth. While India might matter for China, it’s hard to miss that Beijing is currently also embroiled in conflict with superpower US, in the South China Sea, and with its estranged cousins Taiwan and Hong Kong.
In foreign policymaking, a lot depends on how a country analyses its operational environment. Unfortunately for India, our conservatives – who are supposed to prioritise national security at all costs – are not only choosing to ignore the size and complexity of Chinese strategic thinking, but also deciding to ignore a possible territorial bite by them.
Views are personal.