India and China are linked by wounded tangents of history. Because of their sheer size, they accounted for half of global GDP in the 17th century, in a world that was largely agrarian. Both were viciously colonised in the next 250 years, their economies denuded and people impoverished.
Both became free after an epic struggle — a violent war in China, and a largely peaceful independence movement in India — in the late 1940s. China came under Mao’s communist thumb, while India adopted a liberal democratic structure, inspired by Westminster.
Starting off equally under-developed, China took wing under Deng Xiaoping’s aggressive state capitalism in the 1980s.
Today, it is five times richer than India; it also boasts of overwhelming military superiority and geopolitical heft when compared with us. No surprise then that every Indian prime minister who has visited China since that country’s renaissance — Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh — has been shy, restrained, almost sahmahua (to use that wonderfully evocative Hindi phrase) in his words and body language. This was not the case with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi was supremely confident through his Chinese sojourn. His style was firm and easy. His words were polite but blunt, in a lexicon and tenor that protruded above diplomatic niceties.
Asking China to “reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back” and suggesting that it “should take a strategic and long-term view”, he was reprimanding it, in pretty plain-speak, for being inflexible and tone-deaf on border negotiations. “I have proposed resuming the process of clarifying the Line of Actual Control. We can do this without prejudice to our positions,” he added for good measure.
His last punch was allowing e-visas for Chinese tourists, much against the warnings of his security advisers. With one stroke, he showed up China’s stapled visa policy on Arunachal Pradesh to be curmudgeonly and out of synch with 21st century realities. He even had the gumption to hold a 7,000-strong public rally in Shanghai to the ringing cry of Bharat Mata Ki Jai on Chinese soil.
Clearly, Modi is buoyed by the prospects of an ascendant India, something his sahmahua predecessors never enjoyed. He has rejuvenated India’s alliance with America and Japan; is engaging vigorously with global stalwarts from Europe, Australia, Canada and South-East Asia; India’s economy is rebounding and logging in an eye-catching higher growth rate than China, allowing him an assertive bonhomie.
Ironically, Jawaharlal Nehru, virtually the anti-thesis of Modi, was the only other Indian leader who had the circumstantial space to deal with China from a position of strength. Alas, that ended in tragedy, and there’s a lesson here for Modi.
In the earliest days of Indian independence, relations between the two countries were chummy. Nehru, who was infatuated with what he called ‘the other great country of Asia’, became one of the first leaders to recognise Communist China as a sovereign nation after the 1949 revolution.
Despite US pressure, Nehru refused to implicate China as the aggressor in the Korean War. And when China overran Tibet in 1950, he essentially accepted Beijing’s claims as legitimate.
Ever idealistic, Nehru seemed to have something of a blind spot when it came to China; he considered the two countries kindred spirits, the guardians of similarly proud and ancient traditions. ‘[A] variety of circumstances pull India and China toward each other, in spite of differences of forms of government,’ he wrote to his chief ministers in 1952. ‘This is the long pull of geography and history and, if I may add, of the future … There is a definite feeling of friendliness towards India in China.’
Doubts about China began to plague Nehru by 1956, when the Dalai Lama, visiting India with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, broke away from his delegation long enough to tell Nehru that conditions were so rough in Tibet that he wanted to escape to India. The prime minister talked him out of it. But two years later, China denied Nehru permission to visit Tibet. Around the same time, the Chinese were discovered building a road between Tibet and Xinjiang through Indian-controlled Aksai Chin, territory that soon began appearing on Chinese maps as part of China.
Tensions between the two countries escalated in March 1959 after a Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule sent the Dalai Lama fleeing to Dharamsala, where the Indian government granted him and his followers asylum. That infuriated the Chinese, and the two sides skirmished along the border. Nehru established ‘forward posts’ in the contested areas, though he continued to believe that all-out war was unlikely; he didn’t think the Chinese would risk provoking the involvement of the reigning superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union. When Zhou Enlai travelled to New Delhi in 1960 to propose a settlement for the disputed territory, Nehru refused.
Sporadic boundary clashes erupted into full-blown war in October 1962. Though opinions are divided over who actually started it, the outcome is indisputable: The defeat, quick and bloody, deeply wounded the Indian psyche. Nehru later confessed his error in judgment, admitting that he had succumbed to the ‘temptation’ of ‘military weakness’; his government had neglected to build the high-altitude infrastructure necessary to support the army, leaving them wholly unprepared.
And that’s the lesson. The Chinese will respect and deal with India equitably only if we build on our economic strength and geopolitical alliances, especially with America but not against China. In a strange resurrection, a policy of non-alignment with America and China, but strategic engagement with both, with a marginal tilt towards America, and aggressive economic regeneration, will enable Modi to eschew Nehru’s blunders.
Raghav Bahl is a senior journalist and founder/chairman of The Quint
The views expressed are personal