Enter the Dragon: Ladakh Exposes Limits of Modi's China Outreach

Of the many ‘achievements’ of prime minister Narendra Modi that his supporters like to routinely flaunt, this is a statistical record that may haunt the Modi army of bhakts at the moment: no other Indian prime minister has travelled to Beijing as often (nine visits in all, five as PM and four as Gujarat chief minister) and invested as much personal equity in nurturing a relationship with the Chinese leadership. Which is why if the 1962 war is seen by Nehruvians as China’s ‘Great Betrayal’, Ladakh 2020 may face similar damnation in the future from Modiites. If Jawaharlal Nehru’s reach out to China was founded on a romantic illusion of a great ancient civilizational compact, Mr Modi’s engagement has been less ideological and far more personalised.

The Modi rendezvous with the Chinese can be explained at three levels. Firstly, it is rooted in a sense of personal gratitude: it is often forgotten that when Mr Modi was ostracized by the western world in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the two countries who embraced him readily were China and Japan. Which is also why when he became prime minister in 2014, the first major country he travelled to was Japan and the first big power leader he welcomed to India was the Chinese president Xi Jinping. The photo-op of two leaders on a jhoola (swing) in Ahmedabad was seen as evidence of their personal bonding, two Supreme Leaders promising to end decades of mutual antipathy over dal-kadhi and dhokla.

Secondly, there is a sharp business angle that underpins the connection. The prime minister has never hidden his admiration for China’s state-driven private enterprise. A former Gujarat bureaucrat recalls how after one visit to Beijing, Mr Modi encouraged his officials to ‘learn’ from Chinese business management techniques. Chinese business leaders were a striking presence at the Gujarat government’s flagship ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summits and there are at least 25 Chinese companies who have made major investments in Gujarat.

Thirdly, the Modi brand of muscular Hindutva nationalism finds an echo in the Xi vision of aggressive Chinese nationalism. Two strongmen leaders, completely dominant over their party apparatus and exercising a larger than life presence over their citizenry, are perhaps attracted to each other by the remarkable similarities in their political rise. This global brotherhood of Supreme Leaders is an enlarging club of like-minded politicians who might find comfort in each other’s ascent.

And yet, diplomatic relations, especially those with as fraught a history as India and China, cannot be built on personal chemistry alone. In a sense, the bloody encounter in eastern Ladakh only highlights the limits of this highly ‘personalised’ brand of diplomacy where institutional mechanisms are forsaken at the cost of promoting a personality cult. The Modi years have seen the prime minister as a frenetic globe-trotter engaging with world leaders as a rank individualist to the point where the Ministry of External Affairs becomes little more than an appendage to the Prime Minister’s myth-making machine. Then, whether it was the late Sushma Swaraj who had little influence on policy making and was forced to play the role of a friendly visa officer or now Dr S Jaishankar, whose formidable intellect and diplomatic experience appears to count for little, the focus in the last six years has almost entirely been on Mr Modi’s self-image as a game-changing, charismatic leader for whom style and optics often matter more than substance.

This might explain the dramatic decision in 2015 to crash-land for an unscheduled visit to embrace then Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore. Or rushing to the airport to greet the Obamas and bear-hug ‘my friend Barack’. Or driving the Trump family in a cavalcade through Ahmedabad or clasping hands with the US president at a rock concert-like event in Houston. The blaring headlines and artful event management might ensure 24 x 7 news coverage but they can never be a substitute for the exactitude of rigorous diplomacy and quiet ground work that is required to cultivate a relationship beyond personal equations.

Let us not forget that within weeks of the Modi-Sharif ‘jhappiyans’ in Lahore, there was a deadly terror attack at an army camp in Pathankot, followed by a series of such suicide strikes in 2016. Now, within less than eight months of hosting Xi in a luxurious Mamallapuram resort along the Bay of Bengal, India faces the despair of having lost several of its brave soldiers in a gory Sino-Indian conflict in the hardy, unforgiving terrain of Ladakh. With the Pakistanis, it could be argued that a rogue ISI-terror network could never be trusted to hold the peace given their track record of continual violence. Any attempt to make peace with a hostile neighbor like Pakistan is always fraught with risk as several Indian prime ministers have discovered. To that extent, Mr Modi is not the first and probably wont be the last Indian leader to make the mistake of under-estimating the depth of Pakistani state hostility.

With the Chinese, on the other hand, it is far more disconcerting that four decades of relative peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control has evaporated in the matter of weeks. To say we were ambushed by Chinese troops would be to admit to grave military failure. To say we misread Chinese strategic intentions in seeking to rework the status quo at a disputed border would be to admit to a monumental political and diplomatic fiasco.

Unfortunately, political leaderships that thrive on the supremo cult rarely admit to failures, so convinced are they of their seeming invincibility. The wounds of what happened on the night of the 15th of June in the high altitudes of the Galwan valley are perhaps still too raw to allow for such open admissions of judgment errors. Moreover, the wave of strident nationalism that has propelled the Modi juggernaut forward has been of such ferocity that admitting to any failure would be seen as a sure sign of weakness.

But sooner or later, any government, howsoever powerful, must face itself in the mirror, admit to its failings and seek to course correct. That, in a sense, is now the challenge before the Modi regime: accept the shortcomings in its personality-centric Chinese policy, recognize that Chinese ambitions in the neighbourhood pose a genuine threat and then diligently work to restore the status quo ante along the LAC with the Chinese in a manner that national sovereignty and territorial integrity is not compromised. Before unleashing the populist rhetoric of economically boycotting Chinese products or the serial bravado of promising to re-capture Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, lets start with getting back our land in eastern Ladakh. And yes, for once, lets not blame this cockup on Jawaharlal.

Post-script: On the day of the Ladakh encounter, the Maharashtra government signed a big ticket MOU with a Chinese-owned auto maker while a prime time news show called for China to ‘get out’: the sponsor of the show is a Chinese company! Cut the empty bombast, its time to get real!

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