There is no doubt that ties between India and China are at the worst point they have been in decades. Soldiers have died on the Line of Actual Control, the disputed border between the two countries, for the first time in four decades. Reports reveal that between 100 and 200 shots were fired by both sides at the end of August – after more than 40 years without the use of firearms.
This as not unfolded in merely a matter of days. Chinese attempts to grab Indian territory appear to have begun in May. Tensions have been high since.
The context to this is even more important. Over the last six years, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has poured a lot of time and effort into building a personal rapport with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two have met on 18 occasions, including heavily publicised informal summits in Wuhan and just last year in Mahabalipuram.
One of the expectations of such efforts was that if India were being drawn into a bigger conflict with Pakistan, the diplomatic efforts with China would protect New Delhi with having to contend with two active fronts.
Instead, to the surprise of the Indian government, the Chinese Army made the first moves this year, using extremely brutal tactics that led to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of Chinese troops in June. The chances of a two-front war or even a two-and-a-half one, with an extremely restive Kashmir Valley adding to the challenge, now seem very real.
As a result, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement in Parliament on Tuesday insisting that “the House should have full confidence that our armed forces will always rise to the challenge and do us all proud” is simply not good enough. Singh’s statement came after Prime Minister Narendra Modi began the session calling on Parliament to “speak in one voice” to send the message that the nation stands behind its soldiers.
The House may well have full confidence that the armed forces will rise to the challenge. But, unfortunately, it is the government – and indeed the prime minister himself – that has failed to speak in one voice on this issue. Even as Modi told Indians that nobody had intruded on the country’s borders, the external affairs ministry was complaining about Chinese transgressions.
The question is not whether Parliament supports and believes in the army. That is a straw man.
The concern is whether Modi’s government and the rest of the civilian leadership has a credible strategy in place to take on Beijing’s aggression, whether they are willing to acknowledge to the people – or their representatives – how much territory that India was patrolling until May is now in the hands of the Chinese, why the prime minister has not relied on his much-touted personal relationship with Xi Jinping to resolve the situation and whether there were lapses of judgment at either the civilian leadership or military level that allowed this situation to emerge in the first place.
There might well be credible answers to all of these questions. But four months in, the sight of a government refusing to allow a discussion on the issue in Parliament suggests that it is afraid of tough queries and being forced to acknowledge that it looks extremely unlikely to be able to achieve status quo ante – i.e. restoring the situation along the Line of Actual Control to what it was before May.
Even if part of that discussion takes place with other political leaders behind closed doors, after four months of tensions and with Indian soldiers dead, there is also a need to be more transparent with the public at large.
China can get away without even telling its citizens whether soldiers died on the borders. The difference is supposed to be that India’s democratic system becomes more robust when the public is informed and unafraid to question the decision-making of its elected representatives. Why is the Modi government shying away from this?