Looking like some battling Old Testament figure transplanted to the Longewala border outpost in the Thar — a strikingly full white beard, camouflage tunic, dark glasses, and a BSF hat, riding an Arjun MBT, Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again proved he has no equal on the Indian political scene for engineering optics, or registering on the camera.
The PM’s presence among them and what he said was no doubt comforting to the army and para-military troops but it was largely unexceptionable stuff. But let’s consider his comments possibly pertaining to China because that’s the one adversary the Indian government and leaders over the decades stretching back to Jawaharlal Nehru have shown absolutely no instinctive feel for nor ever displayed the necessary confidence or desire to tangle with. That may be the reason why — by way of compensatory rhetoric during the BJP’s current tenure in government — bombastic talk has emanated from Modi exclusively directed at Pakistan!
There are three points in Modi’s peroration at Longewala troops that one can reasonably assume relate to China with which this country has been in a military faceoff since May this year in eastern Ladakh. One, he talked of the world being troubled by certain “expansionist” forces who sport a dated — “very 18th century” and “distorted mindset”. Two, he painted India as a country that “believes in policy of understanding others and making them understand but if an attempt to test [India] is made, then the country will give a fierce reply.” continuing standoff with China at Ladakh border. And finally, he mentioned India having the strength and, presumably the government he heads, having the political will to give — what else — a “befitting” reply to those challenging it. “The world now knows”, he asserted, “that India will not compromise with its interests even one bit.”
Take his points, one by one. Modi is quite simply wrong when he talks of territorial expansionism being an obsolete phenomenon. It reflects badly on the personnel in MEA and PMO advising him, who ought to have slightly deeper historic knowledge. In any case, hardheaded states on the make, such as China, intrinsically value territory and rely on strategic geography to establish an extended global presence. They covet the territorial space on land and sea of adjoining states especially if they are less venturesome, more passive, such as India, and have proved that territorial expansionism is very much on their agenda. Just because the Chinese allude to nonsensical history to buttress their dubious claims does not make China’s territorially expansive policies an anachronism — it is part and parcel of Beijing’s traditional approach of relating to lesser powers among which it clearly counts India. So, no, where China is concerned territorial expansionism is not passe’.
Are there clues in the other things Modi said that may indicate which way his government is leaning vis a vis a likely compromise with China? Beijing has not made it easy on the Modi regime. While eight painful sessions of fruitless talks between corps commanders on the border have come and gone without any progress to show for them, the Xi dispensation has not budged a whit from its original position that the Indian army vacate the heights on the Kailash range — the Rezangla ridge line — it showed the wit, for a change, to capture — beating the Chinese PLA to it. The only give on its part has so far been the offer to withdraw its forces to Finger 8 area in the Pangong Tso north area as long as India does not advance beyond its current presence on Finger 3 even though the Indian claim line extends to Finger 8! This supposedly is a Chinese concession!
Delhi, on its part, is seeking “comprehensive disengagement”. What does this mean exactly? Press reports quote Indian official sources as saying this would involve the two sides withdrawing an equal distance, something the Chinese seem inclined to accept because it will require the Indian army and Special Frontier Force units manning the Kailash heights to climb down encouraging the PLA, as several retired Indian generals have stated, to then quickly occupy these commanding hill tops and permanently disadvantage the Indian army. Considering that no other big power endows bilateral agreements with the ridiculous sanctity that the Indian government insists on doing, India has always lost out and will do so again as the PLA will quickly present Indian with a new Line of Actual Control — something I have been warning about from my first post on this subject mid-May onwards.
In this context, the prime minister’s third point that “India will not compromise one bit” is rendered irrelevant. See what the PLA has done vis a vis the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains — they have blocked Indian patrolling units from reaching Indian areas northwestwards to the Karakorum Pass — the most strategic subregion — the so-called “sub-sector North” in army parlance. And because the Indian army has not forced the issue by forcibly removing the blocking PLA units, that entire area amounting to some 900+ sq kms has, in effect, been lost. So, while in theory Modi and MEA may, with a straight face, aver China has captured no Indian territory and that the LAC remains undisturbed, in reality PLA extensively holds Indian ground and LAC has been grossly violated.
It appears Modi is in no mood to ruffle Xi’s feathers and order offensive operations to push the PLA out of Y -Junction and to recover lost Indian territory. The GOC XIV Corps Harinder Singh was at fault when, instead of ordering instantaneous action to bulldoze through the PLA block when army patrols first encountered it, he waited for higher authorities to green signal some counter-move, which he should have known would never come, leave alone in time for him to do something decisive. This was a tactical decision that was unnecessarily elevated by the Leh Corps HQ to strategic, even political, decision-making level, which was not warranted.
On the negotiating front too India is losing. As I argued in my early posts on the subject, MEA by attributing PLA aggression to an “indistinct” LAC actually provided Beijing with a justification for its moves that it has used ever since. Seeing Delhi on the defensive, moreover, China is now discreetly shoving India into accepting its terms. Here’s where Modi’s “won’t compromise a bit” promise ought to kick in. But it hasn’t. The PM, moreover, has been equally squeamish in not demanding that PLA get the hell out of the Y-j on the Depsang and, if it didn’t do so, that the Indian army would do whatever is needed for Indian units to resume patrolling in that sub-sector to which the Indian army has been denied access. And when the PLA block is removed that precautions would be taken to prevent the Chinese from pulling such blocking maneuvers in the future.
Plainly, Modi, foreign minister S Jaishankar and NSA Ajit Doval have singly and collectively failed to make Beijing “understand”, among other territorial enclaves being contested, the importance the Indian government and people attach to controlling the areas with patrolling points 10, 11, 11A, 12, 12A, etc. north and northwestwards of the Y-junction. And it is clear India has been severely “tested” by the provocation of the PLA maintaining its blockade. So per point 2 of the Longewala speech: Where, oh, where is the “prachand” (fierce) response?
This brings us to the central issue. In the light of the foregoing arguments, would it be wrong to conclude that the PM’s latest speech was the usual hot air Indian politicians emit anytime they have an audience, in this case a captive one? There may be something after all to the lurking suspicion about the BJP government seeming keener than Beijing to arrive at a resolution of the problem even if it means surrendering Indian territory beyond the Y-j and, thereby, giving up the ghost of strategically dominating the Gwadar-bound Chinese commercial traffic, and military movements on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in support of Pakistan’s control of Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan, the region the Imran Khan government has incorporated as another province.