New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always projected himself as a “strong leader”. Yet Modi and his security establishment led by national security advisor Ajit Doval appear to be fumbling for a response as China ratchets up its confrontation with India in Ladakh and US President Donald Trump openly advertises his willingness “to mediate or arbitrate” the “now raging border dispute” between Delhi and Beijing.
I spoke to a cross section of senior officials and political leaders to make sense of the government’s approach. First, the facts. Senior officials in the intelligence community make the following points:
1. After the snows melted, starting in the third week of April, the Chinese side opened six active fronts – at Galwan, Pangong, Demchok, Naku La and 14 km east of Doklam in Bhutanese territory.
2. The Chinese action is not an accident or happenstance, it is clearly by design. The Indian Army and ITBP are being “pushed back, kilometre by kilometre”. It seems that in a month almost 35 square kilometres have been “lost” this way in a month.
3. The plan may include compromising the Indian presence from NJ9842 – the last demarcated point on the India-Pakistan Line of Control, up the Siachen Glacier to the Karakoram Pass.
4. When India moves troops to this section, as it has, the Pakistan Army is expected to begin pin pricks, thus opening up a challenge for India on two fronts.
The intelligence community works on worst-case scenarios, and these are all alarming. Yet, the Modi government has remained mum on exactly what is going on with China in Ladakh.
It seems the hypernationalist anchors on mainstream media who literally bay for Pakistan’s blood in nightly wrestling matches on television have been told not to focus too much attention on China’s aggressive moves in Ladakh. Instead, the media cheerleaders and the BJP’s IT cell have taken to attacking the opposition on an issue where the Modi government needs to provide answers.
So far, all the government has said on the record is that China has “hindered” routine Indian patrolling.
This is identical to the pattern the Modi government followed during the the 2017 stand off between the Indian Army and the Chinese People’ Liberation Army (PLA) over China’s construction of a road in Doklam in Bhutan. The military standoff lasted 73 days and till date neither the Modi government (in its first term) nor China have officially gone on the record about the deal that was struck to stave off a more serious confrontation.
This was unlike the 2019 Balakot strike against Pakistan, where the Modi government from the prime minister down went on a public relations offensive to say that India’s response to the attack Pakistan-based groups had staged at Pulwama was radically different from earlier Indian reactions to cross-border provocations and claimed huge credit on the national security plank.
Significantly, during and after the Kargil war with Pakistan in 1999, the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, briefed parliament and kept all the opposition parties in the loop. Modi has not followed this practise of parliamentary audit and scrutiny, and of keeping opposition leaders on board – either during the Doklam standoff, or in relation to Ladakh now.
In fact, the parliamentary committees on foreign affairs and defence have not even had a routine meeting post the Coronavirus outbreak. On Wednesday, the Congress party issued a statement asking the government to “take the nation into confidence” over the standoff with China and “address the concerns of the people”.
Interestingly, apart from Doval, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar and defence minister Rajnath Singh, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav has also re-emerged as a foreign policy actor.
Madhav, who is credited with the BJP’s Kashmir policy and who was the architect of the party’s short lived alliance with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), wrote an op-ed in the Indian Express recently on how Kashmir needs to get back to normal politics following the scrapping of Article 370 – which removed J&K’s special status in the Indian Union. Sources in the party say this is an attempt by the Modi government to restore normalcy in the valley internally before tension with Pakistan and China mounts.
A senior official of the security establishment told The Wire, “China has assessed that we are the weakest ever right now in terms of friends – especially after the flare up with Nepal – the economy, political resolve and internal coherence. Hence the aggression”.