It was a very clever political move that foreign minister S Jaishankar pulled yesterday by instructing the MEA spokesperson publicly to differ with the Chief of the Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat and the military on the worrisome matter of “dual use” Chinese habitations that have sprung up on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Based, presumably, on photo imagery correlated with digitised terrain mapping data available to the US government, the Pentagon in its 2021 annual report to the US Congress on Chinese military power stated categorically that several of these modern hamlets have recently been put up by the PLA on the Indian side of the claim line.
Instead of waiting for the MEA to pronounce on these “villages” — which issue was bound to be raised Rawat, prompted by the media, rose to the bait and, fell in with the line he thinks is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s position voiced last summer that no Chinese intrusion has taken place anywhere along the LAC. The simple minded General conceded that such buildings had indeed come up. But he suggested these were on the Chinese side of the LAC and were for the purpose of “billeting” the civilians and PLA soldiers posted to the Indian front. The little space he left himself to maneuver out of possible trouble was his qualifying his reference to the LAC with the Indian army’s and government’s “perception” of it. This sort anbiguity has allowed the army and the government to escape accountability for the Indian territory absorbed by China. Except, Modi’s ill-considered remark exonerating China was so laughably wrong he has not repeated it for fear of further damaging his credibility, which fact Rawat had not noted before reacting in the same vein.
But Jaishankar had. With his antennae picking up signals that this issue could become the proverbial political hot potato should the opposition go to town about the Modi regime accepting the Chinese land grab without as much as a squeak, the foreign minister sought deftly to distance himself and his Ministry from Rawat and the military. At his behest, the MEA — assuming it is speaking for Modi and the BJP goverment, not Rawat — immediately contradicted the CDS. Stating that the Chinese had, in fact, violated the LAC and constructed these villages on illegally occupied Indian land, it disclosed it had made a “strong protest against such activities”, as if such protests by a meek and timid India ever register on Beijing. But it left Rawat dangling in the wind.
Such a preemptively defensive MEA statement was considered necessary by Jaishankar because the Pentagon report had also put him in an embarrassing situation by declaring baldly that “these infrastructure development efforts” had occasioned “consternation” in the Modi government, which makes it plain that the GOI, MEA and the Indian army were all aware of the Chinese ingress well inside Indian territory for quite some time. It also reveals that they did not want to publicly complain, convinced that what the Indian people don’t know won’t hurt them, and that making a brouhaha over lost territory would only pressure the Modi government to try futilely to recover the said parcels of land — something the Indian army is not capable of, and hence that it was sensible to say and do nothing! And then Modi’s best friend power, the US, had to go and spoil it.
This was also the logic behind Modi’s original statement in 2020 summer about “koi andar ghus ke NAHI aya hai” and the army’s attempt to misdirect by referring yesterday to a biggish encampment that has emerged in Longju on territory lost in 1959 which does not address the issue of the many other such pucca villages built by the PLA on the Indian side of the LAC since.
What’s not a surprise are the Chinese villages on Indian territory — a result, I said in my 2018 book, of Beijing’s policy of creeping territorial aggrandizement that requires the local PLA and Communist Tibetan authorities to build on newer pieces of Indian land before periodically presenting what’s built and the real estate so annexed as faits accompli that a passive-reactive Indian government and armed forces feel compelled to reconcile to because, well, they can’t do much about it.
What’s more interesting, is the larger game that’s on where the institutional rift opened up between the MEA and the military doesn’t matter all that much. The military by itself being a light weight in intra-governmental politics and power games, Jaishankar’s showing up Rawat on this issue is really to get at the CDS’ patron, his fellow Pauri-Garhwali, the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval. If Rawat is made to look like a political liability, it will reflect poorly on Doval and proportionately strengthen, Jaishankar hopes, his hand and relative power positioning in Modi’s court.
And that’s the game that’s afoot, Dr Watson!