While the factors that allowed the Chinese Army to intrude at so many places along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh remain to be determined, there are several credible reports of intelligence lapses that failed to detect the buildup of the People’s Liberation Army.
To add to this is the confused public messaging by the Union government. In May, the Indian Army chief blamed “aggressive behaviour by both sides” – an “extraordinary submission”, argued academic Harsh V Pant that would “give an impression that we are keen to absolve China of its aggressive policy along the LAC”. A month later, with 20 soldiers killed in a clash, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a startling public claim: “Neither has anyone intruded upon our borders, not is anyone currently intruding, nor is any Indian post in the hands of anyone else.” Modi’s statement was so even unusual, even the Chinese media used it to buttress its own government’s propaganda.
Given the Modi’s government’s muscular national security positioning, this incident could have opened itself up to attacks from the Opposition. But most of the Opposition, in fact, decided to not press the Modi government on this issue.
At the all-party meeting called on June 19, for example, West Bengal chief minister did not criticise the Modi government at all. In fact, she supported the Union government. “We stand with the government in this hour of crisis,” she was quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying. “We will win. We will put up a united fight as one nation.”
Later, Banerjee refused to comment on foreign affairs at all saying that it was for the Centre to decide how to tackle the Ladakh crisis.
Given the bitter Trinamool-Bharatiya Janata Party rivalry, this was a surprising moment of convergence. So much so that the Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman even commended Banerjee: “I would credit her for one thing; at least on the Sino-India border issue, she stood by the Centre.”
The Trinamool wasn’t the only one that decided to use the all-party meeting to back up Modi. “We have no second thoughts about supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has convened this all-party meeting,” said the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president MK Stalin.
The Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray paused his bitter rivalry with the BJP to say, “We are all one. This is the feeling. We are with you, PM. We are with our forces and their families.
Even the Left – the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – took care to not criticise the Modi government for any alleged lapses in Ladakh.
On Monday, chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party Mayawati also echoed Banerjee, releasing a statement that criticised any politicking over the Ladakh intrusions. “Bahujan Samaj Party stands with Bharatiya Janata Party on the India-China border issue,” she said. A similar line was taken by Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party. “ This is an issue of national interest and once should not bring in politics here,” said Pawar as he went on to absolve the Union government of any blame.
The one sharp exception to this has been the Congress. In the all-party meeting, for example, the Congress was the only party to ask any questions of the Modi government. “What date did Chinese troops intrude?” asked party president Sonia Gandhi as quoted by ANI. “When did the [Union] government find out about the transgressions? Does the government not get satellite pics? Did intelligence not report about unusual activity?”
In this, former president Rahul Gandhi has been especially aggressive, attacking the Modi government for its alleged lapses in allowing the Chinese army to intrude into Ladakh. “Narendra Modi is actually Surender Modi,” Gandhi tweeted on June 21.
The next day, Gandhi tweeted out an article which carried reports of the Chinese media running Modi’s “no intrusion” speech: “China killed our soldiers. China took our land. Then, why is China praising Mr Modi during this conflict?”
“China took our land. India is negotiating to get it back,” tweeted out Gandhi, pointing to negotiations between the Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army.
Gandhi’s belligerence is not without consequence. On June 24, the Economic Times reported that the Congress Working Committee meeting saw one leader RPN Singh advise party leaders that criticism of Modi should not be personal – which prompted Gandhi to accuse many Congress leaders of not attacking Modi directly.
Much of this reticence stems from the complete ownership of national security that the BJP has sealed over the past few years. During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP was successfully able to use the Balakot airstrikes in Pakistan as a successful campaign issue. Questions raised by the Congress and the Trinamool asking for more details on the efficacy of the strikes backfired as the BJP was able to use the nationalist fervour that followed the attack to paint any attempt at getting details as an “anti-national” act.
“After the surgical strikes, gloom prevailed in Pakistan, and in Rahul baba and Kejriwal’s offices. They were worried about their vote bank,” said Amit Shah at an election rally, conflating Pakistan with Indian Muslims.
A similar phenomenon seems to be taking place with the Ladakh incursion. Even as questions remain about the incident, most Indians seem to trust Modi over other leaders when it comes to national security. According to a snap poll by Cvoter, for example, while 60% of people feel that China has not got a befitting reply from India, paradoxically at the same time 74% of respondents feel that on national security, the Modi government is more trustworthy than the Opposition. On Rahul Gandhi specifically, 61% of respondents said they did not trust him on national security.
Thus, even when people feel the Modi government has fallen short on national security, relatively it still leads any other party by some way when it comes to this space.
Rahul Gandhi’s own belligerence on the issue – and the media attention it is garnering – might help him given reports that he might make another bid for presidency of the Congress. But in light of the BJP’s ownership of national security, it is not surprising that other parties are strategically choosing to give the Modi government a free pass on Ladakh.