India is learning to behave like a superpower

Before sending out troops on the border, successful governments explore all possibilities on the diplomatic front. That’s what New Delhi did.

columns Updated: Sep 03, 2017 14:46 IST
A file photo from 2008 shows a Chinese soldier (L) gesturing next to an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China in Sikkim. India said August 28, 2017 that troops were disengaging from a months-long stand-off with the Chinese military on a strategically important area of disputed territory in the Himalayas. (AFP)

Heading towards the 75th anniversary of its independence, has India learnt to behave like a superpower? The sequence of events over the last few months would seem to suggest this. You must have got it by now — I mean the standoff with China and its resolution.

The Indian government deployed a judicious mix of strength and wisdom during the Doklam episode. Two videos may be fresh in your memory. The first was in Doklam in which Indian soldiers can be seen pushing back the intruders in Red. In the second, at Ladakh’s Pangong Tso Lake, the physicality of the conflict is palpable. Pelting stones, raining fists and blows on each other, Indian and Chinese soldiers appear to be engaged in a wrestling match. Episodes such as these have taken place on the border with China in the past too, but it was the first time that the videos were being watched by people in their drawing rooms, in a matter of hours.

The places where this skirmishes took place are inaccessible for tourists. There isn’t even a village in the vicinity. So who shot these videos and why did they go viral? The answer to this may still be a mystery, but by destiny or design, it served a larger purpose. The videos kindled a confidence in the common citizen that our defence forces are second to none. When the occasion demands, they can put up stiff resistance and push back the Chinese.

This is a clear sign of a shift in India’s military strategy.

What is significant is that even as India was changing its spots, China was steeped in the old mould: trespassing followed by hollow threats. When its defence ministry said India should remember what happened in 1962, its foreign ministry joined the chorus and added: The way the Indian army went to Doklam, imagine what could happen if the Chinese went and ensconced themselves in Nepal? They unleashed a series of challenges and warnings. For Indians who love sensationalism, this was a different kind of thrill. The two video clips had become a good antidote for their anxieties.

All through this turmoil, the ruling establishment in India displayed extraordinary restraint. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley’s brief but consequential response to the Chinese was that the India of today wasn’t the India of 1962. A few days later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India was ready to resolve every issue through dialogue. That is why world opinion kept turning against them and ultimately China had to drop its road-building plans. This was the second jolt to our powerful neighbour. First, India boycotted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pet One Belt One Road Project (OBOR) and now this. Once bitten, why would India compromise on its sovereignty or on the security of its borders?

Some people believe that after the setback to its ambitious OBOR project, China could not have accepted India’s absence from the BRICS summit. This had the potential of inflicting a serious blow to China’s economic interests. So, it made amends. There is a possibility that India’s policy architects had anticipated this and accordingly taken the blow-hot blow cold decisions. Before sending out troops on the border, successful governments explore all possibilities on the diplomatic front. That’s what New Delhi did.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Beijing at present. In the evolving scenario, he will certainly meet his Chinese counterpart with renewed confidence. One hopes both the countries will prioritise peace and prosperity over other issues. Chanakya wasn’t wrong when he said we can change everything but our neighbours. Alertness, understanding and cooperation are the best policy to deal with a neighbour. China should understand this. Their companies conduct their business in India. If our people turn against China, who’ll buy their products?

It will be wrong to assume that previous governments have not done enough to defend our borders.

In 1967, during a skirmish near Nathu-La, Indian troops neutralised more than 300 Chinese soldiers but the general public didn’t get a whiff of it. In 1999, it took a long time for the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to declare the Kargil conflict as a war. Those were the days of hesitant diplomacy.

In a way the present government led by Narendra Modi has bid goodbye to that policy. Whether it is action against insurgents in Myanmar, surgical strikes against Pakistan or skirmishes with Chinese soldiers, New Delhi hasn’t been reluctant to talk about them. Till now the United States and its allies have been pursuing this policy. We should welcome the tact and maturity that New Delhi has displayed over the last few months. It is a sign of India’s new-found confidence.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief Hindustan

First Published: Sep 03, 2017 14:46 IST