India and China have ended their stand-off at Doklam. Both had an interest in ensuring its peaceful resolution. New Delhi wanted a face-saving exit from a deadlock that was becoming increasingly untenable. It got just that. To counter negative fallout from its climbdown, the Narendra Modi government resorted to domestic media management, pushing the narrative that India’s geopolitical status has risen post “disengagement”.

Beijing wanted to end the impasse, preferably without seeming to make concessions, to ensure the 9th BRICS leadership summit, which it will host next week, was not overshadowed by active hostility between the two largest members of the grouping. Apart from India and China, BRICS is made up of Brazil, Russia and South Africa.

The third party to the Doklam dispute, the muted Bhutan, has welcomed “the disengagement by the two sides”. Doklam, in fact, is fundamentally a dispute between Bhutan and China, and not India and China. By encouraging a narrative that makes Bhutan almost irrelevant to the dispute, the Modi government and the Indian media establishment may have damaged India’s standing in the Himalayan nation. Although New Delhi claims to have sent in troops to fulfill treaty obligations with Bhutan, several reports suggest that Bhutan asked India to withdraw the troops. There is clearly more to Doklam than meets of the eye of the Indian TV viewer.

Changing realities

There was a time when Bhutan was so subservient to India that New Delhi would not hesitate to cartographically claim that country’s territory as its own. That was in 1957. In 1963, even a year after India suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese, the Indian postal department printed a series of stamps showing both Bhutan and Nepal as part of the Indian Union. It was, of course, patently false. Bhutan was never part of the Indian Union; at that time, Sikkim wasn’t either.

So, New Delhi does not exactly have a glorious record in this part of the world. Yet, even today, Bhutan does not maintain direct diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, the only other country it shares an international border with. It is hard to believe this is of Bhutan’s own accord and not because New Delhi effectively runs Thimpu’s foreign policy. However, Bhutan is starting to exercise its sovereign rights, independent of New Delhi.

Bhutan has opted out of the India-sponsored BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement – which, as the acronym suggests, also includes Bangladesh and Nepal – signalling that it does not want to hug New Delhi any tighter and is willing to stand up to it, even if it entails drawing closer to China. A few years ago, this was unthinkable. In Dhaka and Kathmandu too, by pressurising incumbent governments to heed to its wishes, New Delhi has made Beijing a serious player. That New Delhi’s clout in the neighbourhood has limits has become increasingly apparent under the Modi government, which has overseen a surge in India’s unpopularity in Bangladesh and Nepal.

Not speaking truth to power

Much of the Indian media dare not say it like it is. By not critically questioning New Delhi’s decision to boycott One Belt One Road – purportedly over China’s cartographic claim to a part of Kashmir where the Indian flag has never flown – and instead pandering to the urban chest-thumping-class, the media has done a disservice to the public.

New Delhi’s justification for boycotting One Belt One Road is ironic given India’s own history of cartographic mischief with Sikkim and Bhutan. Interestingly, the part of Kashmir in question is claimed by India as its own – unlike Doklam, which it acknowledges is Bhutan’s – and China has built several roads there, yet there has been no “stand-off”. Some in Kashmir have pointed out this obvious double-standard.

Beyond the public theatre, the relationship between the leadership in New Delhi and
Beijing has not been bad at all. This is apparent from China’s massive investments in Gujarat, Narendra Modi’s visits to China both as Gujarat chief minister and as prime
minister, and cooperation in international bodies such as the Word Trade Organisation against Western farm subsidies. By opting out of One Belt One Road, New Delhi has denied potentially great economic benefit to West Bengal and other states in the east and the North East. But the Indian media has largely failed to inform the public of this loss. Similarly, by not taking the government to task for using Bhutan’s name to confront an adversary that it is no match for militarily or economically, the media has again put so-called national interest before public interest. According to the Indian Constitution, the people are the sovereign and their interests are supreme – not the government’s or the military’s. It is public interest, therefore, that must drive India’s relationship with China.