The ongoing India-China border stand-off provides the opposition a perfect opportunity to corner the Narendra Modi government on national security, widely considered its trump card. You can hardly blame the Congress for giving in to the temptation of returning the compliment paid by Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Jawaharlal Nehru following the debacle of 1962. Yet, the opposition must resist this temptation. National interest must trump party interest. PM Modi must be let off the hook, not because he deserves to, but because not doing so would hurt all of us, collectively.
I am no expert on strategic affairs or India-China relationship. Thankfully, there are many clearheaded, uncensored accounts, explanations and analyses of what’s happening on the ground and its larger implications for India-China relations. The need of the hour is to learn from expert views and come to a political judgement. This is a moment to look beyond this crisis, to look beyond petty partisan gains, to look at the long-term national interest, before things go out of hand.
Also read: Not China, 1962 war called India’s bluff
There is a Chinese design
The big picture is fairly clear. India faces the most serious Chinese incursion in the last few decades. This is not one of the routine summer standoffs in this region between the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Nor is it an acute but localised standoff like Doklam in 2017, triggered by a local provocation. This is a premeditated intrusion at multiple points falling in different army zones. Thousands of Chinese soldiers (about 10,000 by this estimate) have entered our side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), including areas that were so far routinely patrolled by Indian troops and acknowledged by China to be on the Indian side. The Chinese have displayed an unmistakable intent to stay put. They have dug trenches, put up tents, brought vehicles, built roads, and fortified themselves on their side of the border. This is a calculated move to alter the LAC in some critical sectors by the sheer force of adverse possession.
We don’t quite know why. Unlike in the case of Doklam standoff, the Chinese have not cared to acknowledge their incursion, let along spell out its reason. But we can be sure that the Chinese state does not take such steps in a fit of absent-mindedness or as a knee-jerk reaction to some provocation. This must fit into a long-term design. It is lazy to see this as an expression of Chinese expansionism. Is this a focused warning to India against building infrastructure on its own side of the LAC to catch up with China’s build-up? Are the Chinese responding to the new map of Ladakh post the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir? Or is it a much larger message to warn India against joining the US-led anti-China coalition? Or a bit of all of the above?
Perhaps, we will never find out, because the Chinese state does not believe in spelling out its intent. So, we have to go by its actions. And the actions must invite worry. The real long-term national security threat to India comes not from Pakistan or any other unfriendly neighbour. The one entity we must worry about is the Chinese state with its economic and military might and a capacity to think and plan long-term and with whom we share a long and fuzzy border.
There is a goof-up on the Indian side
It is also clear that there has been a goof-up at the Indian end. We don’t know who exactly, but either the local commander or the higher-ups failed to anticipate and quickly respond to the Chinese incursion on time. Chinese troops now have the first mover’s advantage. Although the Indian Army has responded by increasing its presence, the PLA has more legs and better infrastructure on the ground.
Frankly, there is little that Indian forces can do now to eject the Chinese troops, and gun-battle is not an option. China enjoys ground advantage besides its undeniable overall military and economic superiority. China is not Pakistan; you cannot think of a Balakot-like surgical operation. The only option is negotiation and persuasion, something the Chinese are not overly keen on. Diplomatic pressure does not work on China. In any case, the Modi government has managed to annoy almost every one of India’s neighbours, including traditional friends such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal. A mix of ignorance and arrogance is taking its toll on India’s relations with its neighbours.
Faced with this hard reality, the political leadership is all thumbs. No matter who has goofed up, the buck must stop with the Defence Minister, if not the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The Indian Army is trying to live in denial, pretending that the Chinese are not changing the status quo of the LAC. The usual hawkish nationalist brigade has its lips sealed, except a silly call to boycott Chinese goods.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh appears to have weakened the Indian case by first saying that the LAC is not clearly demarcated and then making a convoluted acknowledgement of the Chinese intrusion. He is yet to object to the Chinese troops crossing the LAC or assert India’s claim on the area being usurped. PM Modi has maintained a stony silence and appears to have done what he does in any such crisis: depute National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to sort out this mess. Fortunately, for the PM, the media is not asking hard questions, not yet. But this cannot go on for long. Someone is going to ask the uncomfortable question about the Modi government acquiescing to a Chinese ‘occupation’.
This is exactly what Atal Bihari Vajpayee had indicted Jawaharlal Nehru for, speaking in the Rajya Sabha on 9 November 1962, just after the humiliation in Arunachal Pradesh. The Congress could return the compliment. Rahul Gandhi has already demanded that the government “come clean” on the situation on the border. He is hitting Modi where it would hurt his carefully crafted image of an iron man. This displays neither courage nor competence. This mess also attests to a personal failure of the PM’s famous ‘jhoola (swing) diplomacy’, with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The comic intervention by his friend and US President Donald Trump should also embarrass Modi, notwithstanding the latest phone call.
‘National interest’ must come first
Yet, this is one moment when the Congress-led opposition must resist the temptation to attack the Modi government. We are in the midst of a national health emergency brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. A political attack on the government on the issue of national security cannot but distract the government from whatever little it is doing to address this emergency.
We are also in the middle of the biggest economic crisis any single event has induced in the history of post-independence India. Any military engagement, or even preparation for military engagement, would bleed the Indian economy in a way that the country cannot afford. Above all, a pressure from the opposition would force the Modi government into a knee-jerk reaction or an amateurish adventure that can only hurt our national interest. The only way to respond to this long-term design of China is to give our government the room to come up with a well-thought-out response at a time of its choosing.
This is one of the rare moments to safeguard a much-abused term: national interest. PM Modi must demonstrate his commitment to national interest by taking key opposition leaders into confidence. The opposition must demonstrate it by letting him off the hook.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.