The all-party meet may have helped to further national interest in a way that none of the leaders may have intended. The PM wanted it to be a show of his support; his own statement and its inevitable fallout resulted in showcasing the critics. The Congress took the wrong posture for the right reasons: It wanted to ask correct questions to the government, but ended up appearing petty. The non-Congress opposition said the right thing for the wrong reasons: They were either keen to curry favour with the central government or happy to let it cook its own goose. In the end, the “hidden hand” of democratic politics ensured that a collision of these petty designs produced a collective good: The Narendra Modi regime received a much-needed breather without a ringing endorsement.
This needs to be built upon. The stand-off with China has exposed that this regime has compromised national interest. Let us not compound the damage by trying to focus on its failures in the midst of a national economic crisis and health emergency. The only thing worse than what this government has already done would be a knee-jerk attempt to undo the damage via some gimmick that is bound to boomerang and inflict deeper injury to national interest.
Let there be no confusion on this score. We are not looking at one error of judgment. The present mess is a result of at least five failures. Lack of long-term foreign policy foresight combined with intelligence failure to anticipate the Chinese incursion, refusal to respond once it was discovered, loss of nerve in backing the ground troops and finally economy of truth in facing up to and sharing the harsh ground reality with the nation — all this has led us to the embarrassing mess that we find ourselves in. True, facing up to determined assault from China is not easy and any other government may not have made a dramatic difference. But the chasm between claims and reality may not have been as big.
The prime minister’s desire for global approbation and an overwhelming need to be seen on the world stage is only matched by his lack of understanding of how international politics operates. The failure is astonishingly consistent, from his aborted attempt at cultivating Nawaz Sharif to imagining that he is a close buddy of the US President to pretending that he enjoys a special personal rapport with Xi Jinping. The PM cannot tell personal-publicity gains for himself from policy-political gains for the country. While he could get away with the u-turn on Pakistan and the country is yet to see the cost of Trump’s repeated snubs, the lack of foresight in making sense of the Chinese designs is now painfully evident and lies at the bottom of the current fiasco.
This was reinforced by a series of operational failures. Clearly, the government failed to anticipate the seriousness of the Chinese incursion this time due to a Kargil-like goof-up in using the available military and electronic intelligence. Once the incursion took place and was known, the government’s entire focus was on perception management rather than management of the borders. Oddly, the government’s success with the pliant media was its undoing as it could not leverage domestic democratic noise to its advantage. Through the charade of de-escalation and disengagement, China could see that the government of India was under little domestic pressure to regain the territories freshly captured by the PLA, that everything was negotiable. And when it came to actual confrontation, the political leadership showed a loss of nerve. The “no escalation at any cost” message from political leaders meant that China was free to escalate costs for India.
The worst failure, and the one at the root of all other failures, is the failure to face and state the truth. Ever since news of the incursion started filtering in, the government went on a drive to cover up the facts about the Chinese occupation, culminating in the PM’s lie (“no one entered”) in the all-party meet. This was not just a faux pas at odds with the well-known facts and the official position of the MEA. This statement was prepared, perhaps rehearsed and then broadcast to the world, without an appreciation of its diplomatic consequences. There is little surprise that the Chinese propaganda machine is gleefully translating and spreading our PM’s message for its own purpose. In any other country, such a statement by the head of the government could endanger his political career.
Yet this is not the time to focus national energy on his blunder. We need to remember that this mess is not just of his making. Any government would have to deal with the huge and difficult legacy on the Chinese border. Besides, in a democracy, there is a time for everything. There is time for national unity and there is time for political contestation. Anyone who puts national interest above transient political gains would not wish to pin the government down at this stage for its failure and certainly not to push it into a misadventure either on the military or economic front. Jingoistic nationalism is the last thing we need today.
National focus on external security at this stage would be a huge distraction from the ongoing medical emergency and economic crisis, something we simply cannot afford. Even a partial diversion of national resources for a military engagement would bleed our economy and extinguish whatever little hopes we have of a timely recovery from the present economic crisis. Besides, even if we were not facing this twin challenge, retaliation is not a wise move. The only thing worse than a simple-minded pacifism is hot-headed militarism. Notwithstanding the bravery of our armed forces, any attempt at military retaliation could be counter-productive. We cannot afford a flat-footed economic boycott either.
So, this is a moment to take a deep breath, think of the long-term strategic, diplomatic and economic options available to recover what we have lost. The country needs a de-escalation of rhetoric. The government needs some room to decide its strategy. Mature nations do not react when provoked, they respond when they choose to. He may not deserve it or even acknowledge it, but this is the time to help the PM retrieve the situation.
The writer is national president of Swaraj India
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