Tuesday, 21 March, 2023
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Modi’s chest-thumping ministers, and not Congress, are an irritant in dealing with China

If PM Modi had launched ‘surgical’ and air strikes to punish Pakistan in 2016 and 2019, his ministers are now outdoing him in pounding China with verbal strikes.

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At the height of the Doklam stand-off in July 2017, a powerful functionary of the Prime Minister’s Office, now a retired IAS officer, called up a senior journalist of a leading English newspaper.

“Listen, you guys are unnecessarily playing up Doklam stories on the front page every day. It’s a matter of national security,” the bureaucrat told the journalist.  When the latter argued that it was unfair to expect the media not to report what was happening in Doklam, the PMO officer snapped, “But it can be a single column on some inside page. Why is it a front page story every day? Do you want to play with national security?”

Also read: It’s time for China, Pakistan, even India to rethink the fantasy Modi called expansionism

Restraint during Doklam

I can’t share the rest of the conversation or what happened after that. It would be unfair to the source of this information. But this telephonic talk gives a glimpse of how the Narendra Modi government wanted to play down the seriousness of the Doklam crisis to prevent the ever-ready jingoistic brigade from scuttling the dialogue process.

Then external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had told the Rajya Sabha that patience and bhasha sanyam or restraint in language was very important to resolve the stand-off. “Even after war, there has to be a dialogue. So have dialogue without a war,” she had said.

There was also a tight leash on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) warriors who had to stick to the briefs given by the government: basically, no chest-thumping on camera. It turned out to be a prudent and successful strategy.

Also read: From Nathu La to Galwan, India has been trapped in reaction-mode to China’s aggression

But chest-thumping ministers go after China

Cut to June 2020. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched ‘surgical’ and air strikes to punish Pakistan in 2016 and 2019, his ministers are now outdoing him in pounding China with one verbal strike after another.

Communications and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad Thursday declared India’s “digital strike” through a ban on 59 Chinese apps. “We will not make any compromise on Bharat’s integrity, Bharat’s sovereignty and Bharat’s security,” he thundered. The next morning came the ‘thermal and solar strikes’ from power minister R.K. Singh who announced that India won’t import equipment from China. Highways minister Nitin Gadkari struck with a road roller, declaring no Chinese companies will be allowed in highway projects in India. Gadkari’s deputy, General VK Singh (retd), had already given a clarion call: “Let’s hurt them economically. Other things will follow.” In TV studios, BJP warriors are not tired of reminding everyone of the 1962 debacle and of how Modi is not Jawaharlal Nehru.

Addressing the BJP’s virtual rallies, home minister Amit Shah has been reminding people of surgical and air strikes against Pakistan to emphasize that PM Modi is “unlike previous PMs” and anybody who encroaches India’s border will be punished.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi has skipped all 11 meetings of standing committee on defence since September

How Nehru succumbed to war hysteria

So, what has changed since Doklam? Is it the seriousness of the violation of the Line of Actual Control by the Chinese army? Economic retribution against China is, of course, one of the options to many strategic affairs experts who recommend to make China see reason and back off. But union ministers thumping their chests everyday runs the risk of whipping up war hysteria. Unless, of course, these ministers know what we don’t—that the PM has made up his mind to exercise military options to push back the Chinese intruders.

As ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta noted in episode 510 of #CuttheClutter, in 1962, then PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision to go to war with China at a time when he knew the Army wasn’t ready was made under heavy public pressure. Nehru’s decision was made out of exasperation because he was harassed by his critics to go to war.

In 2020, Modi is also facing flak from the opposition Congress that is daring him to expel the Chinese intruders even at the risk of a full-fledged war. It sees in the LAC stand-off an opportunity to divest Modi of his USP or the unique selling proposition—his assiduously crafted image as a strong and decisive leader.

But is the Congress’ onslaught credible enough to make the Prime Minister insecure? There is no evidence as yet to suggest that people are losing faith in Modi’s current strategy of military and diplomatic negotiations to resolve the crisis at the LAC. As per an IANS-CVoter snap poll, 73.6 per cent people trust the Modi government on national security issues, as against 16.7 per cent who trust the opposition. Many of us take such surveys with a pinch of salt but this one doesn’t sound counter-intuitive.

As Asim Ali and Ankita Barthwal, research associates at the Centre for Policy Research, wrote in an article in ThePrint, the BJP  so strongly owns the issue of national security that it’s unlikely to face any political consequences of the government’s ‘blunders’ in dealing with China—unless the LAC standoff escalates further.

Also read: As India-China face off again, late Brig Dalvi’s 1962 memoir a reminder of all that went wrong

Modi needs to see beyond domestic politics

PM Modi has no compulsions to react under pressure, as Nehru did. The first time the opposition seemed to get under his skin was when he impulsively dismissed any Chinese intrusion at an all-party meeting. He has recovered fast. He would rather communicate directly with the people, instead of indulging his critics and getting caught in specifics. On Friday, through his address to the soldiers in Ladakh, he sent out a firm message to an “expansionist” China—and thus allayed the concerns of his happy-to-be-gullible constituents who needed some talking points.

Going further, the Prime Minister needs to be totally unencumbered by domestic political compulsions as he focuses on India’s strategic response to China’s daredevilry.  That’s where his ministers, as also the economic nationalists in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), may end up tying him in knots. In their zeal to show off India’s ability to hurt China economically, they may end up creating war hysteria, in which, boycotting Chinese goods and banning Chinese companies is not good enough. For the Modi era ‘patriots’, ‘surgical’ and cross-border air strikes are the new yardsticks and they would expect no less vis-à-vis China.

These chest-thumping ministers may end up driving the Prime Minister into a corner where India’s strategic options get tied to his political image. If that happens, the country—as also the BJP—may find itself in uncharted waters.

Views are personal.

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  1. Turning a comment here or a comment there into chest thumping is the business of media. Just imagine media writing about or transmitting discourses
    on , Gita, Bible, etc. and we will find all the media in MANREGA.
    We enjoy RaGa why not the others? This was one economic activity which kept the jobs going even during the lock down.

  2. The article is a personal opinion of course unsaid approved under the editorial policy of The Print. A look at the thesis presented bears all the signs of anti-Modi baiters and unseemly use of the word “chest thumping” first being used by anti-Vajpayee journalists, Congress-ites, Deve Gowda following a successful Pokhran II explosion. Ripples were expected but it set a formulation for aggressive Indian diplomacy of shutting the mouths enough for Bill Clinton to assign a special representative to discuss the issue with India. Having said so, the repeat use of the phrase is a signature that whoever the artful author is, he is paid to say things and its anybody’s guess as to how the recalcitrant media symbolised by the mindset of Lutyens Delhi. Let’s analyse the content. One what is the problem? Galwan, vacation of Galwan by China, India’s unpreparedness to counter China, or Modi’s near war cry at Ladakh facing Tibet without naming either China and of course by implication Pakistan? Why is Paksitan not a part of the equation in the affair? Two, is it alleged that such an event such as June 15th standoff at Galwan did not work in India’s favour? Is it alleged that we should learn to watch our tongues? Is it alleged that we have a culture of submissive to China? Three, if these aspects have been representatively established what is the single (or say I mathematically call it singular) point of worry?
    Any discerning reader should analyse the thesis and know why the author is a failed writer leave alone whatever be his status as a journalist. Dump it in the bin!

  3. In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, The Caravan Magazine published an article giving details of the caste of the dead soldiers and trying to make a point that upper caste people, who are apparently in the forefront of the Hindutva movement, were not enough in numbers for those dying for the country. By the same stretch of logic The Caravan should write an article on the death of our soldiers in Galwan, give a break up on their religious beliefs and point out that people who were recently in the forefront of reading the preamble to the constitution during the anti CAA protests were conspicuous by their absence there.

  4. Mr Haresh Makhani : Since when did opposition parties of the BJP become traitors? Is the Trinamool a party of traitors? The DMK ? Telugu Desam party ? MNS ? Care to elaborate and draw up a comprehensive list of traitors according to you and your lathi wielding shakha friends?

    • Trinamool is traitor party i am a Bengali we know how the TMC runs by receiving funds from jamaat organization in Bangladesh

  5. it is matter of regert that many minister in cabinet are unnessesarily giving their views, they are more trouble maker than anybody else and what they know what is gioing in p m mind. they just want to come to media, they are doing more harm than good.. i think only pm and max defense minister should speak on subject and all others are advised to keep their mouth shut.

  6. When a nation’s majority believes in a monologue directed by the govt, irrespective of accountability & responsibility, it is a sure sign of autocracy setting in. The backing of the defense will be an icing on the cake.

  7. More than the chest thumping ministers it is the chest thumping media.Watching Arnab Goswamy,Rahul Sivasankar, Navika Kumar, Anand Narasimhan etc one has got to be convinced that China will be kicked out tomorrow.It is a pathetic scene to see BJP spokesmen claiming that not one inch has been conceded to China. Deception. Now another phenomenon.Newly found love and sympathy for Muslims and also Christians who are” persecuted” in China. All these years after watching what is being perpetrated back here. At least in this aspect Modi and are comrade in arms

  8. The China border incident may cause no lasting harm to the PM and he may also perhaps get his dearest wish fulfilled of a 3rd consecutive electoral victory at the national level. The harm is going to accrue to the RSS. Similar to how the right-wing blames Nehru for all his blunders without taking into account circumstances prevailing during Nehru’s times, so will the blame for all of present day blunders be put on the head of RSS when the Modi era passes. For today’s right-wing will be replaced by more rabid groups in the future and the circus will continue.

    Poor India and poor Indians have suffered in the past and will continue to suffer in the future due to inept govt run on the basis of failed politics and failed economics.

    • At the end of the day, you are a anointed a leader not for your excuses, it is your leadership. To that extent, not being able to handle his own party is the worst failure of its kind. If you could not as a leader of your party rally them around your ideas and a consensus, it tells me Nehru did something seriously wrong. I am not knowledgeable on how he did or conducted his affairs. However, from Shekar’s you tube video, it seems like he had no clue. Why would you send Chinese to talk to the hawkish clowns of your party? Is that the right thing to do? So much for being a democrat. It is one thing to let your party men and your cabinet have a say in the matter. It is another thing to follow their foot steps when it is not in the interest of the nation. If Nehru thought so, that makes his exacerbation even worse. He just could not handle the pressure of the JOB….. So PLEASE.. stop making the excuses….

  9. How can China be an irritant in dealing with China?
    Congress IS China. Congress is China’s agent in India.

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