India is currently facing two crises along its northern borders, neither of which have anything to do with Covid-19. In Ladakh, the Indian Army appears to be involved in a stand-off against Chinese troops at several points along the disputed Line of Actual Control. At the same time, on Sunday, the Nepal government tabled a Constitution Amendment Bill that would alter the map of the country to include hundreds of kilometres of Indian territory.
The Indian Army Chief suggested that both these issues are connected – an insensitive comment that did not help matters in Kathmandu. Yet, they present two distinct problems for New Delhi to tackle.
On Nepal, the Indian government seems to be stuck in the past.
New Delhi seems miffed by Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s tactic of drumming up nationalistic sentiments within the country as a means of putting pressure on its larger neighbour – even though it is an approach India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is fond of using at home. India would rather Kathmandu settle this friction through diplomatic talks, paying respect to New Delhi’s role as the dominant power in South Asia.
Yet, as Indian Express’ C Raja Mohan writes, “It makes no sense for Delhi to hanker after a ‘special relationship’ that a large section of Kathmandu does not want.” The Ministry of External Affairs, which is now making last-minute efforts to prevent the map being approved by Nepal’s Parliament, has struggled to handle Kathmandu over the last few years, as China’s influence has grown.
It would be prudent for New Delhi to acknowledge that discomfort at the very idea of Indian hegemony is a major driver of Nepal politics, one that offers Beijing an opening. India’s ministry of external affairs must instead push for a reset in engagement based on interests that are common to both sides.
The Chinese issue is more complex, though nearly a month after the initial clashes between the two armies in Ladakh, the Indian government has only offered a limited acknowledgment of how serious the issue really is.
Though it may be wise for New Delhi to avoid coming out strongly against Beijing in public statements, giving both sides the political space to de-escalate from the stand-off, the Indian government cannot ignore the fact that the BJP has built up Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as being a leader who gives no quarter.
Modi’s party has done little to create the space for a public conversation about the borders that involves anything other than “56-inch rocks” (the purported width of the prime minister’s chest) and “ghar mein ghus ke marenge” (we will come into your house and attack you).
The emergence of a video showing Indian troops challenging Chinese soldiers sparked an alarmed reaction from the Indian Army “We strongly condemn attempts to sensationalise issues impacting national security,” it said in a statement, claiming that any “attempt to link [the video] with the situation on the Northern borders is malafide”. Chinese social media accounts passed around another photo, showing injured Indian soldiers, some of whom had rope tied around their legs.
The authenticity of these leaks may be contested, but their effect – to whip up bellicose sentiment – is uncontested.
Even as it stands firm against Chinese incursions on the Line of Actual Control and India’s right to build infrastructure along the border, New Delhi needs to create the domestic space for a broader set of responses – whether military or diplomatic – without making them seem either as weakness or as a declaration of war. The government also needs to examine questions around intelligence and operational failures – which some are being compared to Pakistan’s 1999 Kargil intrusions – that led to this situation int the first place.
China’s incursionary actions, even as the world is dealing with a pandemic that Beijing could have done more to contain, are deplorable. But India’s comments by senior officers like “China stabbed us in the back” seem to betray a naivety about the India-Chinese relationship. Meanwhile, New Delhi is pushing back against Chinese investments and its Hindutva supporters as pushing for Indians to boycott Chinese goods.
“Unless India is able to find an effective counter-strategy to this pattern of Chinese behaviour,” writes former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, “incidents of the kind we have seen at many points on LAC are not only likely to continue but to intensify.”