The avoidable controversy over what should have been a routine, unexceptionable meeting between Rahul Gandhi and China’s ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, holds many lessons. For the Congress party and its vice president, the incident highlights the need for open lines of communication within the party as well as the perils of a lack of proportion and perspective in its position on complex issues such as India-China relations. The episode also points to the immaturity in India’s domestic political conversation when it comes to engagement with countries with whom certain aspects of bilateral ties may be going through a contentious phase.
Leaders across the political spectrum — including chief ministers and those in the opposition — can and do interact with envoys to India. Such meetings often contribute to the depth and width of relations between nations. The meeting between Rahul and Luo, however, became a victim to denials, clarifications and a defensive backlash from India’s oldest party. To begin with, the Congress denied that the July 8 meeting took place. Senior party leader and communications department head Randeep Surjewala insinuated that it was “fake news”. When the Congress Vice President eventually confirmed the meeting later that same day, he said, quite rightly, that it was his “job to stay informed on critical issues”. But, and here’s the problem, he also hit out at the government, asking it to explain why three Union ministers were “accepting Chinese hospitality while the border issue is on”.
The criticism of Gandhi’s meeting with the Chinese ambassador and his defence of it share an underlying assumption: Interactions with the Chinese state and its officials are to be viewed with suspicion in times of turbulence in ties. This has the effect of reducing the broad engagement between two of Asia’s oldest civilisations and largest economies to fodder in a game of political one-upmanship guided by short-term considerations. The temptation to see the relationship between India and China — at a time when tensions have been revived on the Sikkim border — through its ruptures rather than its continuities, must be avoided. A glimpse of the maturity that should inform India’s ties with China at all moments, and especially in difficult times, can be found in a speech by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar delivered in Singapore on July 11.
“The India-China relationship by now has acquired so many dimensions,” said India’s top diplomat, “that reducing it to black and white argumentation cannot be a serious proposition.” The political class, both in government and opposition, must heed his words.