Earlier this month, the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne, and the Lowy Institute, Sydney, released ‘India Poll 2013: Facing the Future’. A survey of Indian attitudes towards other nations and broad themes concerning foreign policy, the poll covered rural and urban citizens across representative socio-economic categories and regions.
As can be expected, there was a range of findings. Despite the current slowdown, 74% of Indians remained optimistic about the economy in a five-year time frame. In response to a question on ‘feelings towards other countries’, the United States got 62% approval ratings and emerged as India’s most popular external partner.
Perhaps the most important results are related to China. It became clear a substantial swathe of Indian opinion had begun to see China with suspicion. Seventy per cent felt China’s aim was to dominate Asia. Sixty-five per cent wanted India to actively join other countries to limit China’s influence (though 64% also wanted India and China to cooperate on the world stage). Complementarily, 97% felt strengthening India’s economy was its top foreign policy priority; 99% felt a strong military capacity was critical to achieving India’s foreign policy goals.
It is tempting to test these numbers against real-life events and diplomacy: the recent incursion in Depsang, Ladakh, and Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India. The Chinese foray 19 km into territory that it did not previously control disturbed the status quo on the ground and was generally interpreted as a provocative action. However, there was no consensus in the Indian system, within the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on how to respond.
There was a school that was determined to play it down, let the Chinese retain their tents if required, focus on other aspects of the relationship and not snub a new Chinese leader who would be around for a decade. Another school advocated playing for broke. Resorting to artful brinkmanship, it more or less threatened to cancel Premier Li’s visit if the status quo was not restored and the tents in Depsang did not fold up. The calculation, correct as it turned out, was the Chinese system was not completely secure behind its inscrutable demeanour and would not want to jeopardise a new premier’s first visit abroad.
In the end, the more daring school had its way, the Chinese backed down and the visit went ahead. In New Delhi itself, the Indian prime minister pushed further and told his Chinese counterpart that “peace and tranquillity” along the border was the “foundation” of the relationship. In a sense, the smaller, less powerful neighbour was putting the onus of not repeating a Depsang, and not inviting a charge of disturbing the peace, on the bigger country.
While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s final message to Premier Li may have been described as “firm” and may have reflected mainstream Indian sentiment, it was by no means consistent with earlier statements. Singh began by describing the incursion as a “localised event”. External affairs minister Salman Khurshid sought to see it as “acne”. When he travelled to Beijing just days before Li’s visit, Khurshid said he didn’t know why the Chinese had entered Depsang and didn’t consider it necessary to ask them or otherwise raise it. These responses simply didn’t square up with the final line given to Li in New Delhi and asserting “peace and tranquillity” on the border was non-negotiable.
So what changed? The period from “localised event” to “peace and tranquillity” saw fervent debate within the Cabinet, within and between the PMO, the MEA and the defence ministry, and between sets of officials tasked with resolving the problem. It is fairly obvious now that those sections of the MEA that sought a tough line and were willing to resort to a form of coercive diplomacy both anticipated and were bolstered by the domestic mood — the reaction of political actors within India, of the media and of civil society.
These sections recognised two things. One, the stakeholder constituency for foreign policy had widened enormously and going completely counter to larger public opinion was just not an option. Two, the misgivings the Indian middle classes had about China needed to be factored in before formulating any response. On the other side were those who advocated that old cliché, a ‘nuanced position’, that would not hassle China, not even remotely send a signal of leaning towards the Americans, not endanger some quixotic pursuit of Nonalignment 2.0 and would essentially involve doing nothing.
Which side was right? Which set of diplomatic practitioners better understood and read the course and conduct of modern diplomacy in a raucous democracy such as India? Diplomatic judgements cannot be governed by mob emotions, but neither can they brush aside the views of ordinary people altogether and arrogate all authority to an elite of domain specialists. Used cleverly, domestic opinion can even be a force multiplier for a diplomat. In that sense Depsang, Premier Li’s visit and ‘India Poll 2013’ have all been remarkably clarificatory.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator The views expressed by the author are personal