Modi’s leadership a hurdle in China’s strategic agenda
The people of India should be alert to this possibility that their internal political differences will be used by China to further its larger strategic agenda. In this climate, countervailing pressure, including the economic and cultural boycott of China, is inescapable — although care must be taken to not alienate countries such as Singapore and Taiwan where there are large numbers of resident ethnic Chinese. Yes, as the Athawale prescription indicates, there are often excesses. But even his idea has to be kept in perspective. The battle on the Home Front involves the detection and decimation of what is best called the Vichy mentality. No further elaboration is necessary
The suggestion — it is probably more accurate to view it as an outburst — by Union Minister Ramdas Athawale calling on Indians to eschew Chinese food has been greeted with a mixture of bewilderment and ridicule. The Republican Party stalwart who is in alliance with the BJP has the tendency to make frivolous interventions in the Rajya Sabha which are calculated to provoke his adversaries. But his highly individualistic style doesn’t imply that he lacks political sense. There is method in Athawale’s seeming flippancy.
There is palpable public anger over the clash with Chinese forces on the Ladakh border that has led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers. The belief that China cannot really be trusted is a sentiment that first expressed itself during and after the border conflict in 1962 in which India was humiliated. The national humiliation rubbed off on Jawaharlal Nehru and India’s first Prime Minister lost a great deal of his political sheen. It was fortunate for Nehru that the border war happened after the general election where the Congress coasted to a comfortable victory. Had the border conflict erupted into a full-scale war in 1961, the ire that was subsequently directed at VK Krishna Menon and Army Chief General Thapar would have been channelled against the Prime Minister.
The charge of trusting China and investing too much on developing a personal bond with Xi Jing Ping has now been levelled against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, while the Opposition is expected to use every opportunity to embarrass the Government and try and make political capital over the loss of soldiers’ lives, the charge is unlikely to stick.
First, unlike Nehru who went out of his way to portray China as a natural ally in the larger fight against Western domination, Modi has presented the relationship with our eastern neighbour as a complex problem that warrants unending attention, including attempts to effect a personal bonding with the Communist leadership. It will be difficult to point to instances where Modi — unlike Nehru — has presented a rosy picture of bonhomie.
Secondly, where Nehru was relatively lax on national security, somehow believing that China shared common ideals with India, the Modi Government has taken the position that China — if not an outright enemy — is a determined adversary, and that India’s strategic and economic evolution will have to factor in Beijing’s subterfuge. India’s focus for the past six years has been capacity enhancement and forging deeper relationships with other world powers. True, there has been a major setback in Nepal. The present political dispensation in Kathmandu appears to have more or less decided that it must terminate its special relationship with India and move formally into the embrace of Beijing. This has added to neighbourhood complications and sharply underlined the fact that China will do all it takes to pin India down.
Finally, it is also clear that China has an aversion to Indian influence in Asia and the world. Archival documents now clearly reveal that the Chinese leadership developed an allergy to Nehru because they saw him as both arrogant and a man who rose above his station. It would not be surprising if the present leadership — notwithstanding whatever political tensions that may exist between the People’s Liberation Army and the political leadership — entertain a similar view of Modi. They probably view Modi as more dangerous because his foreign policy is backed by India’s growing economic importance in the world. Consequently, even if the military option is exercised with caution, Beijing will persist with its schemes to constantly undermine Modi.
The perception of Modi as a major irritant who dares to oppose the Belt and Road scheme and puts obstacles in the path of China’s domination of the Indian market, witness the refusal to join RCEP, is very strong. China is a very determined power that does not play by the book when it comes to furthering its national and strategic interests. The decision to redraw the LAC in the Ladakh sector was an attempt to test India’s responses and try and puncture Modi’s reputation both internally and externally.
It naturally follows that a bid to weaken Modi internally is an important facet of this approach. Proof of Beijing’s direct involvement in India’s domestic politics may be difficult to come by at present. However, if the evidence of the Soviet Union’s involvement in Indian politics as revealed by the Mitrokhin archives is anything to go by, the quantum of encouragement to individuals and institutions opposed to Modi is certain to be significant. The people of India should be alert to this possibility that their internal political differences will be used by China to further its larger strategic agenda. In this climate, countervailing pressure, including the economic and cultural boycott of China, is inescapable — although care must be taken to not alienate countries such as Singapore and Taiwan where there are large numbers of resident ethnic Chinese.
Yes, as the Athawale prescription indicates, there are often excesses. But even his idea has to be kept in perspective. The battle on the Home Front involves the detection and decimation of what is best called the Vichy mentality. No further elaboration is necessary.
Sunday, 21 June 2020 | Swapan Dasgupta