On China, the error of judgement
No other Indian prime minister (PM) has travelled to Beijing as often (nine visits, five as PM and four as Gujarat chief minister) or invested as much personal equity in nurturing ties with the Chinese leadership as Narendra Modi.
Which is why if the 1962 war is seen by Nehruvians as China’s “Great Betrayal”, Ladakh 2020 may face similar damnation in the future from Modiites. If Jawaharlal Nehru’s outreach to China was founded on a romantic illusion of a great ancient civilisational compact, Modi’s engagement has been less ideological and far more personalised.
The Modi rendezvous with the Chinese can be explained at three levels. First, it is rooted in a sense of personal gratitude. When Modi was ostracised by the West after the 2002 Gujarat riots, the two countries which embraced him were China and Japan. Which is why, soon after becoming PM in 2014, the first major country he travelled to was Japan and the first big power leader he welcomed to India was the Chinese President Xi Jinping. The photo-op of the two leaders on a swing in Ahmedabad was hyped as evidence of their special bonding, two supreme leaders promising to end decades of Sino-Indian mistrust over dal-kadhi and dhokla.
Second, there is a sharp business angle that underpins the connection. The PM has never hidden his admiration for China’s State-driven private enterprise. Chinese business leaders have been a striking presence at Vibrant Gujarat summits and Chinese companies have reportedly invested thousands of crore in the state.
Third, the Modi brand of muscular Hindutva nationalism finds an echo in the Xi vision of aggressive Chinese nationalism. Two strongmen, dominant over their party apparatus and exercising a larger-than-life presence over their citizenry, are perhaps attracted to each other by the remarkable similarities in their political rise.
And yet, diplomatic relations, especially those with as fraught a history as India and China, cannot be built on personal chemistry alone. The bloody encounter in eastern Ladakh only highlights the limits of this “personalised” brand of diplomacy where institutional mechanisms are forsaken at the cost of promoting a personality cult. The Modi years have seen the PM as a frenetic globetrotter, reducing the ministry of external affairs to little more than an appendage to the PM’s myth-making machine.
Then, whether it was the late Sushma Swaraj who was relegated to the role of a lighthouse for Indians in distress or now S Jaishankar, whose formidable intellect and diplomatic experience appear to count for little, the focus in the last six years has almost been on refurbishing Modi’s self-image as a game-changing, charismatic leader for whom style and optics often matter more than substance.
This might explain the dramatic decision in 2015 to crash-land for an unscheduled visit to greet the then Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore. Or rushing to the airport to receive the Obamas and bear-hug “my friend Barack”. Or driving the Donald Trump family in a cavalcade through Ahmedabad or clasping hands with the US president at a rock concert-like event in Houston. The blaring headlines and artful event management might ensure 24x7 news coverage, but they can never be a substitute for the exactitude of rigorous diplomacy and quiet ground work that is required to foster ties beyond personal equations.
Let us not forget that within weeks of the Modi-Sharif bonhomie in Lahore, there was a terror attack at an air force station in Pathankot, followed by a series of suicide strikes in 2016. Now, within less than eight months of hosting Xi in a luxurious Mamallapuram resort along the Bay of Bengal, India has lost several of its brave soldiers in a gory conflict in the hardy, unforgiving terrain of Ladakh. With the Pakistanis, it could be argued that a rogue Inter-Services Intelligence terror network can never be trusted to hold the peace.
With the Chinese, on the other hand, it is far more disconcerting that four decades of relative peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has evaporated in a matter of weeks. To say we were ambushed by Chinese troops would be to admit to military failure. To say we misread Chinese strategic intentions in reworking the status quo on a disputed border would be to admit to a monumental political and diplomatic fiasco.
Unfortunately, political leaderships that thrive on the supremo cult rarely admit to failures. The wounds of what happened on the night of June 15 in the high altitudes of the Galwan Valley are perhaps still too raw to allow for such open admissions.
But sooner or later, any government must face itself in the mirror, admit to failings and course correct. That is now the challenge before the Modi regime. Accept the shortcomings in its personality-centric Chinese policy, recognise that Chinese ambitions in the neighbourhood pose a genuine threat; and diligently work to restore the status quo ante along LAC in a manner that national sovereignty and territorial integrity are not compromised. Before unleashing the high-pitched rhetoric of promising to recapture Pakistan- Occupied Kashmir, let’s start with securing our land in eastern Ladakh. And yes, let’s not blame this on Nehru.
Post-script: On the day of the Ladakh encounter, the Maharashtra government signed a big ticket MoU with a Chinese-owned automaker while a prime time news show called for China to “get out”. The sponsor of the show is a Chinese company. Cut the hypocrisy, it’s time to get real.
Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author of 2019 : How Modi won India.
The views expressed are personal