The adage that ‘history never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme’ is attributed to Mark Twain. This aphorism acquires relevance in relation to the Indian security predicament apropos of China. December 1962 was a period when New Delhi, with PM Jawaharlal Nehru at the helm of national affairs, was coming out of its deeply entrenched denial and misplaced certitude about the bilateral relationship with Beijing, after the Indian Army was administered a humiliating defeat. Sifting through recent developments related to China, it may be averred that in the tea leaves of December 2022 one may be able to discern certain rhymes that are reminiscent of the chimes of 1962.
Will President Xi emulate Mao, and if so, will Prime Minister Modi be able to shed the Nehru cross?
While India is still dealing with the sullen stasis related to Galwan of June 2020 in the Ladakh area of the disputed LAC, there has been yet another jolt to the visibly uneasy bilateral relationship. On December 9, PLA troops clashed with Indian soldiers in Arunachal Pradesh. This was a significant departure from the peace and tranquillity norm established in this region since 1993.
The Tribune was the first to report this transgression on December 12. A day later, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh informed Parliament: ‘On December 9, 2022, PLA troops tried to transgress the LAC in Yangtse area of Tawang sector and unilaterally change the status quo. The Chinese attempt was contested by our troops in a firm and resolute manner. The ensuing face-off led to a physical scuffle in which the Indian Army bravely prevented the PLA from transgressing into our territory and compelled them to return to their posts. The scuffle led to injuries to a few personnel on both sides. I wish to share with this House that there are no fatalities or serious casualties on our side.’
Two strands of the Yangtse episode merit scrutiny to identify the correspondence with 1962 and the challenge that China poses to India. The first is the political management of a national security challenge and the manner in which the narrative has been handled; and the second is the military-strategic dimension of the bilateral relationship.
India’s 1962 War with China was the culmination of a compounding set of policy blunders that arose from an inadequate appreciation of Chinese intent and capability and a reluctance to inform the nation in a candid manner about the gravity of the challenge to territorial integrity.
In the current Yangtse scenario, the transgression took place on December 9, and the government chose to keep the matter under wraps for three days and was, in a way, compelled to inform Parliament only after The Tribune broke the story. Even while being cognisant of the need to maintain a degree of reticence about critical tactical matters pertaining to national security, this pattern of obfuscation (Galwan) and not apprising Parliament (Yangtse) is not becoming of a nation that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.
The Nehru-Modi correspondence apropos of China is reflected in the image of a strong leader with a majority in Parliament and a huge national mandate functioning in a simulacrum — an imagined reality that is removed from the facts on the ground — with the issue being further muddied by bitter domestic political discord.
The Yangtse incident has led to an absurd sequence of events, where facts have been distorted in keeping with political compulsions. Consequently, a section of the media in India (television in particular) has risen in unison to unctuous heights to shield the government and the PM to further obfuscate the gravity of the China challenge.
Thus, India’s China policy remains hobbled by two structural factors; first, the reluctance of the government to apprise Parliament of the situation and engage in an informed debate. This flaw is further exacerbated by the reluctance of the mainstream media in general to objectively ‘report’ facts and highlight policy inadequacies, in keeping with the institutional integrity that is associated with the fourth pillar of democracy.
The China challenge will not disappear or get diluted by domestic make-believe or vituperative political discord. The need for a degree of all-party political consensus is imperative, and the onus lies on the government to enable such a process through parliamentary deliberations. The Indian track record in this regard is not flattering. One has to recall the manner in which the UPA government led by PM Manmohan Singh was castigated by the BJP over the civilian nuclear agreement with the US to gauge the abiding political divisiveness over critical strategic issues.
The military-strategic strand of the Yangtse incident points to the classical capability-intent conundrum that any nation faces when having to contend with a belligerent neighbour. India has lived with the unresolved territorial dispute along the LAC that remained suspended along the contours that emerged in the aftermath of the 1962 War.
Six decades later, there has been no consensual resolution of this seemingly intractable dispute and the probability that there could be a return to the 1993 peace and tranquillity protocol is even more remote, given domestic developments in China that include the latest Covid surge and its impact on President Xi Jinping.
One rhyme embedded in China’s history is that a leader who feels besieged by domestic challenges tends to stoke the nationalist sentiment and play the military card. Will President Xi emulate Mao, and if so, will PM Modi be able to shed the Nehru cross?
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