Sikkim standoff: Why China is challenging India now
The India-China military standoff near Sikkim continues. The rhetoric from both sides is very revealing of their states of mind. India is adopting a conciliatory tone and China an uncompromising one. India will be “patient and peaceful” in dealing with its neighbours says the Narendra Modi government, commentators emphasise Delhi’s moderation and maturity. China insists that withdrawal of Indian troops from Doklam is a precondition for dialogue. Chinese experts are not mincing words. Victor Gao, a former diplomat and once an interpreter for Deng Xiaoping, has said that any other country in China’s situation of seeing foreign (Indian) soldiers on its territory would send troops to drive them out. He says the longer India keeps troops in Doklam the more likely a military confrontation is.
The reaction in Indian media to the standoff with China is markedly different from what tensions with Pakistan usually provoke. Television channels are not dishing out angry hashtags about Beijing as they usually do about Islamabad’s misdemeanours. The Indian establishment clearly wants to avoid a confrontation. In Delhi’s muted reaction and Beijing’s belligerence there is perhaps a tacit acknowledgment in both capitals that the reason China is being aggressive is because India now is the weakest it has been for years.
China wants to symbolically establish dominance in Asia and it has chosen a moment when the contours of India’s path to decline are fairly well-established, three years into Modi’s rule. This is the lesson that Delhi should take away from this standoff, that not only is India militarily not in a position to challenge China now (short of a nuclear exchange), the direction that the BJP is taking the country undermines India’s capabilities as a power and leaves it in no position to resist China’s belligerence in the years to come. This is the time to starkly assess India’s situation, let go of the positive spin the BJP government puts out, and see India how its adversaries would.
This may be a counterintuitive argument to make because India certainly has some impressive attributes: a large youthful population, a formidable military machine with nuclear weapons, a sizeable middle class and elite to keep foreign companies interested for years and, like any happening power, it hosts several business and think-tank conferences. China is evidently not daunted by this because some indicators of India’s power make for grim reading.
India’s vulnerabilities are manifest in four areas. The first is in the economy, where India has recently seen a series of self-inflicted wounds. India has had a weak investment climate for years owing to regulatory bottlenecks and because its banks are saddled with bad loans. Demonetisation was needlessly introduced in an already difficult situation and it brought cities to a standstill for weeks on end and compounded an agrarian distress by simply short-circuiting billions of transactions in rural India and disrupting supply chains. Growth slowed to 6.1% in the last quarter, one economist believes it may have permanently damaged the country’s informal sector. After demonetisation came changed rules for cattle slaughter which essentially constitute a form of trade war against Muslim entrepreneurs, Dalits and the meat export industry at large. The subsequent introduction of GST has bred widespread confusion; one businessman simply warns that “small traders will die”.
Alongside the effects of recent decision-making India has a jobs crisis, an education crisis and a skills crisis. PM Modi promised 100 million manufacturing jobs by 2022; around 135,000 materialised in eight sectors in 2015--far shorter of the 12 million that reportedly enter the workforce each year. The government has simply abandoned the goal of training 500 million Indians as part of its Skill India plans. The education sector looks almost irredeemable. A committee appointed by the ministry of human resource development has conceded that “large segments of the education sector…face a serious crisis of credibility in terms of the quality of education which they provide, as well as the worth of the degrees which they confer on students.” There are simply too many bad teachers in government schools, many of whom get their jobs through patronage or corruption. Students are not failed in schools and colleges for political reasons--since parents would be angry if governments provided their children bad education to begin with and then failed them. India thus has millions of youth with college degrees often lacking foundational skills let alone employable ones.
If challenges in the economy, education and skills weren’t enough there is now an active attack on India’s social cohesion, the one thing that held the country together despite all its problems. BJP rule has seen a spike in hate speech directed at Muslims that has led to their targeting and lynching. The Indian Muslim is being constantly represented as a hate figure with a view to snap the possibility of an associational life between Hindus and Muslims. All this corrodes social life and undermines economic productivity - a divided and fear-ridden country is hardly in a position to pool its energies and talents to tackle present and future challenges.
Several other fissures have come to the surface since 2014. In addition to intensifying Hindu-Muslim strife, there is the North-South divide which we are increasingly seeing because of the NDA’s attempts to impose the Hindi language. There is continuing conflict in Kashmir and great restiveness among different social groups elsewhere: Patels and Dalits in Gujarat, Rajputs in Rajasthan, and farmers in various states, including Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.
Not only is society beyond polarised by identity politics, the Modi government is also instinctively anti-intellectual and waging a war against knowledge, particularly targeting the liberal arts and social sciences. There is not a single variety of independent intellectual endeavour that is potentially not under threat in India now either by regulation, censorship or physical intimidation - be it a play, film, comedy sketches, documentaries, political discussions in universities or academic publications.
This is a disturbing trend with real implications because the Modi government is letting its antipathy toward liberal intellectuals undermine the transmission of social science knowledge in India - which is indispensable for a society to understand itself and the world. The problem here is two-fold. Progressive intellectuals dominate the social science scene in India, perhaps not in number but in the standing they have in their disciplines. On the contrary, there is no credible right-wing intellectual ecosystem in India--in that one can scarcely find historians or sociologists sympathetic to the BJP who are capable of being published by university presses, the gold standard of academic publishing. Rather than treat progressive intellectuals as a national resource, the BJP government is hell bent on marginalising them, thereby threatening to snuff out forms of knowledge that have developed with some difficulty over the decades. If India is struggling with its quality of education to begin with, it makes little sense to undercut whatever little intellectual capital it has. The Modi government may well note that in the US a few years ago around 58-66 percent of social science professors identified themselves as liberals, only 5-8 percent as conservative. Liberal intellectuals are often critical of America and yet its governments do not interfere in academic life as universities advance knowledge and ultimately America’s cultural power.
The real source of India’s weakness at the moment is that the Modi government is concentrating its energies on achieving political and ideological dominance, rather than addressing the country’s glaring deficits. Politics of polarisation has taken precedence over governmental efforts to facilitate cooperation among citizens that can yield productive outcomes. All regimes in big powers aim to increase power, but they strive for excellence as well (in the hope of compensating for weaknesses). In India we are, for most part, seeing the former without much evidence of support for the latter. The Chinese Communist Party is, on the contrary, unflinching about exercising political control but is pushing the country towards new frontiers. It wants to introduce 100,000 industrial robots every year and plans on having 150 robots in operation for every 10,000 employees by 2020. It is making major investments in artificial intelligence; this year an international conference of AI researchers in the US had to be rescheduled because Chinese delegates could not attend as it clashed with the Chinese New Year. China takes social science seriously too and is making strenuous efforts to get Western academics to teach and undertake research projects in China, through initiatives such as the Thousand Talent and Thousand Foreign Experts programmes.
India, by contrast, is grappling with basic issues of social order, the rule of law - and constrictions on the life of the mind. The military standoff with China is an important opportunity to take a hard look at its own realities and see how they stack up against the priorities of other countries. If the Modi government does not change course now, the gap between India and China will increase in the future and give Beijing more reason to continue bullying India.
(Views expressed are personal. The writer tweets as @SushilAaron)