Prime Minister Narendra Modi had four aims in mind for his quick turnaround trip to Ladakh — the scene of the fiercest Indian hand-to-Chinese nails-studded baton fighting that led to the loss on June 15 of 20 personnel of a battalion of the 16 Bihar Regiment, including its CO Lt Col Santosh Babu.
The PM sought to (1) show support for the forces deployed in this high-altitude battlefield, (2) reassure the Indian people who have been disappointed by the BJP government’s stupefied inaction in the face of the unexpected Chinese tactics and occupation of territory on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, (3) clean up his smudged nationalist image with optics showing him as a wartime leader on the frontline amidst Indian soldiers, and (4) signal President Xi Jinping that the cask of the Wuhan and Mamallapuram spirit has run dry, and were China to resort to further armed hostilities the Indian military would respond in kind. Whether this signal will be properly received and how Beijing will react to it, of course, remains to be seen. But at least and finally the PM conveyed his resolve and the army’s to stand their ground.
Except, and this is the troubling part, a senior army commander — it must have been one of the three senior most officers accompanying the Prime Minister — the Chief of the Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, Army Chief General MM Naravane, or the General Officer Commanding XIV Corps Lt Gen Harinder Singh, undercut the ostensible thrust of Modi’s message by revealing to a newspaper the more limited type of operations contemplated by the Modi government and the army. “We have no intention of initiating any skirmish”, this officer is quoted as saying, “but any aggression from the other side will be fully repelled.”
This means India will undertake no military actions to remove the People’s Liberation Army units entrenched on the Galwan and the Pangong Tso in Indian territory, and right smack on the LAC at Gogra and Hot Springs, disrespecting the No Man’s Land separating the two sides on the Line from where the intruding PLA troops may or may not be evicted. But that the army will react in case there are further Chinese attempts to grab Indian land. This is to say that China gets to keep the territory it has already occupied at the first two sites and, for all intents and purposes, annexed. In this context, was Modi’s trip an eyewash to conceal the Indian government’s policy of not contesting the Indian territory expropriated by China? It fits in with the totality of statements issued by both governments in recent weeks. My worst fears (expressed in the May 25 post on this blog) have thus come true: Indian forces in eastern Ladakh were presented with a new territorial fait accompli which the Modi regime has accepted. Alas, this lonely Cassandra may, once again, be proved right.
Addressing the troops Modi said “The weak can never accomplish peace, the brave do.” This uplifting sentiment was undermined by an infirm grasp of international affairs and a somewhat shaky sense of history. “The age of expansionism” the PM declaimed, “is over, this is the age of development” and added “History is witness that expansionist forces have either lost or were forced to turn back.” That both these statements suggest just the opposite is apparent from the record of Sino-Indian relations and in the history unfolding in real time in Ladakh. A powerful expansionist China far from being punished and forced out of its ill-gotten territorial gains is, in fact, being rewarded by the victimized state (India) quietly reconciling to loss of territory. This impulse of China’s is manifested everywhere on its periphery — in the South China Sea where its Nine-dash Line encompasses almost all of this Sea, and now in the capture of India’s Galwan Valley and the Indian part of the northern shore of the Pangong Lake. This reality on the ground mocks Modi words!
To make it more farcical still, Modi chose on this occasion to channel his inner Donald Trump! Not once mentioning China by name in his address, he told the assembled troops that the enemy “has seen your fire and fury”, presumably at the June 15 Galwan clash, and received a strong, direct message. It may be recalled that in the wake of the threat of missile strikes by the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in August 2017, Trump warned North Korea that it “will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Modi rounded off with a trifle too high praise for the military, saying “You have proven time and again that the Indian armed force is mightier and better than everyone else in the world.” Such talk may bolster the spirits of the Indian mountain infantrymen who may be asked to fight at these forbidding heights. But the danger is that it may lull the military brass into their customary complacency. After all, if the Indian military is all that good, taking back the territory annexed by China should pose no real problems.
But to revert to the PM’s utterance about the inability of the weak to accomplish peace, unfortunately, it is India that is the weak party — its military, economic, diplomatic disparity with China too great to gloss over but too obvious for Modi to openly acknowledge. The sheer imbalance of power may leave India with dire options. Should China not peacefully vacate its occupation of Indian territory in toto, the limited war the Indian armed forces would have to undertake to roll-up and push out the aggressor PLA units will necessarily have to be backed by the threat of first use of nuclear weapons (the case for which is argued in extenso in my latest book ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’).
Activating the nuclear arsenal by bringing into the theatre mobile Agni missiles as nuclear cover for conventional operations is unavoidable. It will test the mettle and the political will and nerve of the Prime Minister. Modi better not fail.