P rime Minister Narendra Modi and his long-term associate, Home Minister Amit Shah, are past masters at the art of using aggressive political propaganda in the face of personal and organisational adversities. Right from October 2001, when Modi took over as the interim Chief Minister of Gujarat from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) veteran Keshubhai Patel and started dominating the politics of the State first, and the party at the national level later, this duo has time and again employed this stratagem to overcome challenges. The last week of June 2020 saw them do this once again. In a series of synchronised moves, the Modi-Shah team launched a combative campaign, evidently aimed at reclaiming the loss of face that they and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government have suffered in the past couple of months in many areas, including in the face-off with China in the Galwan valley in eastern Ladakh and in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The confrontation at the Galwan valley resulted in the death of over 20 Indian soldiers, including a commanding officer of the rank of Colonel, and injuries to scores of others. On the pandemic front, June saw an exponential rise in the number of cases in the country, with the last seven days of the month registering an all-time high average of approximately 20,000 new cases a day.
Public reaction to the casualties suffered at the hands of Chinese soldiers was palpably emotional. Surveys conducted by different agencies, including the IANS-CVoter Snap Poll, showed that a large number of people—in most surveys above 60 per cent—did not believe the Prime Minister’s assertions at an all-party video conference held on June 19. Modi then said that India had not lost any territory to China in recent months and that “neither have they intruded into our border, nor has any post been taken over by them” though “20 of our jawans were martyred, but those who dared Bharat Mata, they were taught a lesson”. Over 60 per cent of the respondents in the survey stated that a “befitting reply has not been given to the Chinese”.
On the COVID front too, the Prime Minister was increasingly seen making comparisons with other countries—much like United States President Donald Trump—to show India as better off than them even as large segments of the population started feeling unsafe.
Rhetoric all the way
It is in this context that both Modi and Shah made public appearances and engagements and resorted to rhetoric, focussing on both Galwan and COVID. In yet another episode of his periodic “Mann Ki Baat” radio programme, Modi iterated that “India’s spirit of universal brotherhood has been noticed by the world, and at the same time it has also noticed India’s commitment and might when it comes to safeguarding her sovereignty and territorial integrity”. He said that “those who cast an evil eye on Indian soil in Ladakh have got a befitting response” and went on to add that “India honours the spirit of friendship… (but) she is also capable of giving an appropriate response to any adversary, without shying away”.
On combatting COVID too, the sense of unity people had shown was one of the greatest strengths of India in the fight against COVID, he said.
In an interview to a television news agency, Amit Shah echoed Modi’s proclamations. He stated that he wanted to assure the people of the country that “we will win both the battles; the one against COVID and the other related to efforts by the Chinese army to intrude into Ladakh”. He said: “I want to assure the people that under Modi’s leadership we will win both the battles.”
Amit Shah sought to explain the position on the face-off with China as follows: “I want to state it on record that whenever I have mentioned Jammu and Kashmir State, it has included Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin. The borders decided by the Constitution of India and Jammu and Kashmir’s Constitution include Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin.” However, the Union Home Minister skirted specific questions on the horrific incidents at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
A central theme of the two leaders’ interventions in June end was the specific and overt targeting of the opposition parties, especially the Congress, even though the points they made were about universal and national issues, which are generally kept out of petty politicking. Amit Shah sought to highlight the “anti-India propaganda” on social media and accused former Congress president Rahul Gandhi of “making the kind of statements and pushing the kind of political agenda that are being liked in Pakistan and China”.
He said: “It is sad that at this time of crisis you are indulging in such propaganda. It should be a matter of concern for the Congress party that your leader’s hashtag is being promoted by Pakistan and China.”
Modi accused almost the entire political leadership of being responsible for the country’s debacle on the defence front until the BJP’s ascent to power in 2014. He said that before Independence “our country was ahead of many countries in the world [in defence matters]” as there were “multitude of ordnance factories”. Many countries that lagged behind India then, he said, “are ahead of us now”. He added: “After Independence, we should have made efforts in the defence sector, taking advantage of our prior experience, but we did not. Now, in defence and technology, India is taking strides towards self-reliance.”
The large organisational machinery of the party and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar was quick to take the lead from the two topmost functionaries of the BJP and its government. Accordingly, BJP national president J.P. Nadda challenged the Congress, especially Rahul Gandhi, for a debate on the Chinese intrusions since 1962. This was in response to Rahul Gandhi’s tweet “rechristening” the Prime Minister as “Surender” Modi, punning on the perception among defence experts and the lay public that India had surrendered territory to China in the current face-off. Nadda’s contention was that under Congress regimes from the time of Nehru, India had lost thousands of square kilometres of land to China. “That’s exactly why we need a historic debate from 1962 to date to fix responsibility for let-downs on the border,” Nadda said.
Soon, the Sangh Parivar’s rank and file, especially its cyber warriors, took the propaganda forward. The campaign, to put it mildly, was vicious, with extremely personal attacks on the Nehru family and other Congress leaders.
An Ahmedabad-based former senior leader of the BJP told Frontline that this line of aggressive campaigning and targeting was something that Modi and Shah had perfected right from their early partnership in Gujarat politics. “They braved the flak of the 2002 communal riots as well as the criticism that came up even from organisations like the BMS [Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh] for patronising capitalists like Adani and Ambani. It was the same all-out attack that helped the duo sideline other leaders in the Sangh Parivar such as Sanjay Joshi, once rated on a par with or even above Modi in the Sangh Parivar hierarchy, and Pravin Togadiya, the former international president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad [VHP]. Joshi, who was perceived as a bigger threat in terms of individual political ambitions, was apparently honey-trapped, and a shady CD cropped up just before the beginning of a BJP national executive meeting in Mumbai, thus leading to his ouster,” the former leader said.
He added: “There is a saying in the Gujarat BJP that when the chips are down Modi comes back fighting with 20 hands. I am of the view that Modi and Shah realise the relevance and significance of the loss of face on China and COVID, especially the manner in which it has manifested on the ground. Undoubtedly, they would do anything to claw back and make the public mood decisively in their favour.”
However, there are no signs, at least in the early stages of the new campaign, of the public mood turning in favour of the ruling dispensation. In fact, within the larger military fraternity, which includes both serving and retired officers, some of the points in the BJP-Sangh Parivar campaign are being taken down objectively. “When you are asked questions about the current face-off and the casualties, you respond with a counter saying that we have lost thousands of square kilometres since 1962 and that the discussions have to start from there. The very argument shows that you are on the defensive in relation to the current situation,” a former senior Army official told Frontline .
This officer cited a number of points being discussed in informal and closed social media platforms of the Army. Some of them are as follows: “Talks on the situation in the Ladakh Area have made no headway. The Chinese are not budging from their positions even as they speak of disengagement. The Chinese have further fortified their positions in the Galwan valley and the Pangong Tso areas, and satellite imagery shows not only an increase in the number of troops but also concrete structures and heavy weapons at these places. In the talks at both the military and diplomatic levels the Chinese have asserted their claim over the whole of the Galwan valley and are not willing to discuss the issue. In the Pangong Tso area they have not only disregarded their own original claim line but have totally violated the LAC to which they had adhered over the years. They are now dug in well forward of the positions they maintained since 1962 and almost the entire North Bank is with them. The situation in the Depsang Plains and the Hot Springs-Gogra area remains equally tense with the build up of troops continuing.”
Another point of view highlighted in these groups is that China’s design is to dominate the strategic Darbuk-DBO road leading to the Karakoram Pass. “What is not understood is why now? The DBO road has been under construction for the past 20 years and surely the Chinese must have been aware of the progress.”
Many analysts feel that the Chinese strategy is to cut off northern Ladakh and link the Aksai Chin Highway with the Karakoram Highway in POK with the aim of protecting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). “This makes no sense. Why should the Chinese fight their way across the Karakoram mountains and the world’s largest glaciers, including the Siachin Glacier into Baltistan, against a professional army, to protect their interests in POK, when they can drive down the Karakoram Highway from Xinjiang through the Kunjerab Pass into Baltistan without firing a shot. Much easier to launch their operations from Xinjiang Province.”
A sort of conclusion articulated in these groups is that “the Chinese will continue to move forward, step at a time till they acquire positions, ‘salami slicing’, as the analysts call it, from where they can expand their borders, when they do desire. If they can do this with minor clashes and skirmishes they will have achieved their purpose.”
Clearly, the perceptions within significant segments of the Army do not resonate with the campaign points that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are seeking to advance under the leadership of Modi and Amit Shah. Commenting on the whole sequence of events, former Lieutenant General H.S. Panag told Frontline that in times like these, the national leadership should focus on specificities of national interest and should not function in such a manner as to create ambiguity in the minds of the public and the international community. “The logical approach to national security must begin with a strategic review to establish what the present and future security challenges, both internal and external, are to evolve a comprehensive national security strategy. The first step towards it is to delink national security from domestic politics. The onus for this is on the government. The government must take the opposition, Parliament, the media and the public into confidence, and apply the security principle of need to know. They must explain the reality on the ground so that the nation can present a united front.”
Obviously, much thought has gone into the former Lieutenant General’s words, but do people obsessed with acquiring and maintaining positions of power really care?