In an interview where she held back from criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his statement on Friday night (“na koi wahan hamari seema mein ghus aaya hai”) and accepted the PMO’s edited version of what the PM said, former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao has nonetheless been sharply critical of the government’s overall communication on the India-China situation.
She said government communication must be “more precise and less ambiguous”. She added “every word is weighed carefully”. As she put it, its “masticated, there is no doubt about what is being said, there is no ambiguity”. However, what we have ended up with is “a compounding of confusion”. Rao said she is very concerned about this.
In a 41-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Rao, who is also a former ambassador to China, specifically said the PMO must clarify what it means by the phrase “across the LAC”. Earlier, when foreign minister S. Jaishankar spoke to his Chinese counterpart, he pointed out that the Chinese had attempted to build a structure on our side of the LAC. The PMO, however, used the words “across the LAC”. This needs to be clarified, said Rao.
In the interview, Rao said she accepted the PMO statement that when he spoke on Friday, the prime minister was only referring to events in Galwan. She would not comment on the fact that the PMO edited out or dropped the first half of the prime minister’s critical sentence where he said, “Na koi wahan hamari seema mein ghus aaya hai”. She also said the prime minister’s statement did not have implications for the Pangong Lake situation because the prime minister was only speaking about Galwan.
Questioned about the way in which China has translated the PM’s statement into Mandarin and circulated it widely on social media and the way the Global Times has interpreted this statement, Rao said Chinese propaganda was only to be expected.
However, when questioned specifically about a Global Times editorial from June 21 which said PM Modi “understands his country cannot have further conflict with China so he is also making an effort to cool tensions”, Rao said there was a need to “contain the emotional hysteria”. She criticised calls to boycott Chinese goods as well as the public breaking and throwing of Chinese television sets.
Rao said India is “completely devoid of experts on China” and we need to correct this vacuum quickly. Her suggestion was that, at the moment, we do not read the Chinese correctly and do not fully understand their intent and don’t know how to respond appropriately.
In the interview to The Wire, Rao spent a lot of time talking about the impact of the India-China tussle on India’s image in the South Asian neighbourhood. Calling it “a very dark hour”, she said the outcome was “a great blow to our prestige in the neighbourhood”. She poignantly added: “I grieve for India”.
Rao said in response to the crisis with China, India needs to rethink its neighbourhood policy which, at the moment, she said was in “shambles”. She said “we need to be more generous, more giving”.
Rao put a lot of stress on the need to improve relations with Pakistan. She said there was a need “to build on old connections” which do not just go back generations but centuries. She said there was a need “to reopen the channels for communications”. She added we need to “dissect what went wrong in our Pakistan policy”.
Calling Chinese behaviour “aggressive and adventurous” she also said India cannot “turn its back on engagement”. As she put it “complete disengagement is not the answer”.
However, “the face China has shown us is unpleasant, unfriendly and hostile” and we now need to be “less hesitant and less sensitive about China”. She said “India must stand up for its interests more assertively and also speak out in defence of the constitutional and democratic values it upholds”.
In this context she said, “India should develop more ties with Taiwan”. She explicitly ruled out changing the one-China policy but said we could have closer “trade and economic contact and people to people ties with Taiwan”.
Asked if India should be more outspoken in support of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, she said India should “develop a policy towards Hong Kong in concert with our other partners and neighbours”.