The death of 20 Indian soldiers after the 15 June clash with the Chinese army at the Galwan Valley in Ladakh has triggered an intense political debate in India.
The Narendra Modi government’s silence and denial on the two-month-long stand-off, followed by its confusing explanations in the aftermath of the Galwan clash have put it in a tight spot.
The ongoing discussion among the experts and the analysts is that Modi’s political compulsions will dictate his response to China and that his failure to do so will be politically costly. These discussions germinate from two points: first, Modi’s self-portrayal of a larger-than-life ‘chowkidaar’ responsible for India’s security, and second, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) intense politicisation of national security issue as witnessed during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
But a caveat to this is that Modi’s chest-thumping and the BJP’s entire national security rhetoric has largely been built in the exclusive context of Pakistan and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. China was never really a part of it.
Given the 24×7 politician Modi is, there is no doubt that his political instincts must have heightened, way before his security and diplomatic instincts in the aftermath of the Galwan clash. So, while it is possible that certain political calculations will be taken into account as Modi responds, it will have its limitations because the political fallout of the ongoing crisis will be very minimal for Modi and the BJP.
China is no Pakistan
The Modi government’s national security agenda has been Pakistan-centric and is based on three parameters: Kashmir, terrorism and communalism. In the run-up to the 2019 general election, national security majorly occupied the government’s basket of agendas, evident in its election manifesto that began with the chapter ‘Nation First’. This included ‘zero tolerance to terrorism’, ‘abrogation of Article 370’, ‘implementation of Citizenship Amendment Bill’, among others.
The shadow target beneath all these promises was Pakistan. Since the Uri attack of 2016, Modi and the BJP have left no stone unturned to antagonise Pakistan in the minds of the Indian people. But in the six years that it has been in power, the BJP has never really attacked China in public, not even during or after the 73-day Doklam stand-off in 2017.
None of the three parameters that antagonise Indians against Pakistan can be tagged to China. Unlike Kashmir, the issue of the contested region of Aksai Chin lacks public discourse. It had never been a part of the BJP’s political propagation until recently when Home Minister Amit Shah mentioned Aksai Chin in the same breath as Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, during a discussion on dilution of Article 370 in Parliament. Similarly, state-sponsored terrorism or infiltration is not synonymous with China. The dispute with China has always been on a more official level—between the militaries and the diplomats of the two countries. Beijing’s attempt to change the status-quo on the boundaries has never been led or accompanied by attacks on innocent civilians of India. Most importantly, there is no element of sectarianism in the India-China relationship. Sectarianism has been one of the key electoral planks of the BJP, and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has been the primary target of its rhetoric. Unlike the electoral capability of the Hindu versus Muslim rhetoric, there is an absence of a Hindu versus Han Chinese rhetoric.
This evident lack of uniformity in the government’s national security agenda and the convenient omission of the Chinese in the BJP’s political rhetoric of national security will play to the Modi government’s advantage if the recent clash on the Sino-Indian border were to become an electoral issue.
The game of perception
It is now established that Modi and the BJP are champions in the game of political communication and perception management. Whenever they have found themselves in crises, they have resorted to these championed strategies to bail themselves out, be it after the terrorist attacks in Uri and Pulwama, an economic disaster such as demonetisation, or the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent labour crisis due to the strict lockdown.
The game of perception has been pertinent in Modi’s China policy as well. Modi’s Jhula diplomacy with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the bank of Sabarmati river in 2014, the ‘Wuhan Spirit’ of 2018 and the ‘Chennai Connect’ of 2019 are the three instances that stand out. The perception that was created by all of these was that Modi extended the hand of friendship to the Chinese and shared a warm relationship with its President.
This runs parallel to Modi’s attempt vis-a-vis Pakistan up until the Uri attacks. Then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s attendance at Modi’s oath-taking ceremony and the latter’s surprise Islamabad stopover in 2015 laid the base for Modi’s friendly overtures to Pakistan. What followed was the Pathankot airbase and the Uri attacks—in the span of six days and nine months respectively—after the Islamabad stopover. Amid the murmur of Modi’s failed Pakistan policy, the perception created by the ruling dispensation was that Islamabad had back-stabbed a friendly Modi. It was a rare occasion when the hardliner Modi was presented as a victim and it worked. Following a similar template, the ongoing stand-off and the last week’s clash at Galwan have occurred approximately eight months after Modi hosted Xi at Mamallapuram for the second India-China informal summit. This time too, the perception that is being created is that Modi has been backstabbed by Xi.
The tool of sympathy is being used once again to cover-up the failure of Modi government’s China policy and as we all know, sympathy is a great vote-catcher in this part of the world.
Lack of Knowledge
A very important thing that will work in the favour of Modi and the BJP is the lack of public knowledge on the India-China border issue. The border issue on India’s eastern flank finds limited space in public discourse as compared to the issue on the western flank. The discourse on China is readily discussed among public intellectuals—experts, analysts, commentators etc. But, for the people at the grassroots—the primary voters—the knowledge beyond the headlines is predominantly inaccessible. While we may argue that it is a common issue on the subject of national security, be it China or Pakistan, the emotional quotient attached to the latter is absent in the discourse with the former.
This is where the opposition parties have faltered. They have made no serious attempts to educate the public on the ongoing issue. The opposition’s lackluster attempt is a combination of several things—the BJP’s anti-national rhetoric against anyone who questions the Modi government on national security, the ongoing pandemic and the overall lack of political instincts of the opposition to counter Modi and the BJP.
Thus, Modi facing a political fallout in the case of his failure to take any strong action against the Chinese is highly unlikely. The first political test of this issue will be the Bihar assembly election later this year whose political bugle has already been sounded by the BJP and the Prime Minister. Modi and the BJP have lost no time in milking the death of the personnel of the 16 Bihar Regiment at Galwan. The sympathy wave has already begun and there is no stopping Modi and the BJP, even as their national security agenda falters.
Ashutosh Nagda @nagdashutosh is a Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. He is an alumnus of SOAS, University of London. Views are personal.