Rahul Gandhi Meet With China Envoy Latest Self-Goal By Congress

Published: July 12, 2017 17:23 IST
Let's face it: our relationship with China is not something any of us can ignore. And that goes double for our politicians. In the distant, distant past - by which I mean before May 2014 - a Chinese incursion at the border meant shrill calls for the Prime Minister's resignation. For some reason, that is no longer the case - I wonder why - but it's nevertheless true that Indians are just uncomfortable with the notion that their government will back down if provoked.

This makes the current confrontation on the India-China-Bhutan border particularly worrying. Mainly because it certainly isn't India that's created the problem on this occasion. Here's the basic assumption that has kept bullets from flying along the MacMahon Line: that neither India nor China will change "the facts on the ground"; nobody will build permanent installations on land they both claim. The Chinese, by bringing in earth movers to build a road on the Doklam plateau, are essentially violating that tacit agreement. And, when they met with the resistance that they should have known was inevitable, they raised the temperature in unprecedented fashion. Their official statements were far more angry and intemperate than usual; the government's newspaper, the People's Daily, even put out a facsimile of its front-page editorial from 1962 attacking Indian "provocation" on the border.

Now you'd think that this may not be the best time for India's opposition parties to get involved. And if they do, at least they should have a plan for what they're doing. And so the Congress' behaviour about Rahul Gandhi's meeting with the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi was inexplicable. If Gandhi was going to meet the ambassador, he should have emerged and declared that he had gone to convey his support for the government's stand, and to indicate political unity at home. Instead, he stayed silent at first; when the news broke, the Congress denied it; then it was forced to admit it, with Gandhi claiming that he was simply keeping himself informed. By then, it sounded weak, and left him open to accusations of undermining the government's stand on the issue.

This is absurdly stupid of the Congress - the kind of self-goal it can hardly afford. And it isn't good for India in general, either, because it lets the government off the hook. Attention shifts to the haplessness of the Congress, an easy and familiar target, when we should be asking what precisely the government intends to do to de-escalate the situation on the border.

We need to ask that question because, frankly, it looks like Modi Sarkar is clean out of ideas. It has one approach to any problem: Modi's famed "personal diplomacy". This government labours under the misapprehension that the Prime Minister's personal charm is so overpowering that pretty much any foreign leader will respond by giving India whatever it wants. There were murmurs from officials, therefore, before the PM left for Hamburg's G-20 meeting, that even an informal meeting with Xi Jinping of China would be enough to settle the issue. And we know that an informal meeting happened because we saw photos of it. But that has made zero material difference to China's attitude. So now what?

The additional wrinkle in this case is that it isn't technically India that claims the Doklam plateau, but Bhutan. And the Chinese are going around asking everyone why, in that case, it's Indian soldiers they're confronting. We better have a good answer to that one - and it's extraordinary, to my mind, that we don't have a clear treaty relationship with Bhutan to point to. Since a new treaty was signed in 2007, we have no longer been responsible for "guiding" Bhutan's foreign policy. The Chinese have chosen to make a big deal of this point, with several quasi-official mouthpieces pointing out that India would not be pleased if they moved into Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir at Islamabad's behest. This is a somewhat hilarious hypothetical for two reasons. First, it compares Pakistan to Bhutan, which would no doubt infuriate Pakistan. And second, it's not precisely a hypothetical, since the Chinese have already moved into parts of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir at Islamabad's request. So what precisely is their point?

Let's be frank: the Modi government's neighbourhood policy has been a bit of a disaster. We have struggled in Sri Lanka, blown hot and cold on Pakistan, and lost Nepal and the Maldives. Now we are taking Bhutan for granted and are completely clueless on how to handle an increasingly aggressive China. "We are tougher than Manmohan" is not precisely a strategy - especially if you aren't.

Things don't look good. Modi Sarkar's China cluelessness reflects an overall lack of seriousness. We don't have a full-time Defence Minister. Defence spending is proportionally lower than at any time since 1962. Beijing is grumbling, believing its overtures have been rebuffed; for the first time in ages, its establishment is in fact invoking the 55-year-old war we fought and lost. And New Delhi is sending its troops out to confront the People's Liberation Army with minimal strategy and even less backup. A "forward strategy", if you will - again, shades of 1962. I know that Modi thinks he's another Nehru, but does he have to repeat his mistakes as well?

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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