EXPECTATIONS were high among the political class as well as observers when Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke with his own conventions and called for an all-party meeting on June 19 with the professed objective of discussing the face-off with China at the Galwan valley in eastern Ladakh, which led to the killing of 20 Indian soldiers and grievous injuries to many more. Throughout his six-year-long regime, in two terms, Modi has been distinctively antipathetic to the idea of conversing with the opposition and building a consensus, whether through formally convened all-party meetings or through informal consultations.
Even in exceptional crisis situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the Prime Minister has systematically ignored appeals, especially from opposition parties, for consultations across political and ideological barriers. The manner in which he stayed away from a formal all-party meeting in February 2019, following the dastardly Pulwama terror attack in which 40 Indian paramilitary personnel were killed, put the stamp on the approach that Modi has evolved in relation to broad-based consultations.
Thus, when the initial calls went out for the June 19 meeting, there was a sense that the Prime Minister and his government had taken the eastern Ladakh face-off with China with extra seriousness. As many as 23 parties were invited to the online videoconference, including 15 belonging to the opposition.
Its formal outcome, as recorded by several agencies and media forums, including the publicity departments of the Union government, was that all parties asserted the sovereignty and integrity of India and expressed solidarity with the Indian Army and the government in its military and diplomatic battle against the country’s “superpower” neighbour. At its core, this outcome underscored the commitment of the Indian political class as a whole to the national interest.
However, very many nuances relating to the gathering, including the manner in which it was conducted, the evident mismatch in the positions adopted by the Prime Minister in the meeting and the one advanced by the Minister of External Affairs earlier, the studied indifference to pointed questions about the Galwan face-off, all once again laid bare the fact that the conclave was not backed by any real intent or conviction about having broad-based consultations and building consensus. Almost all the trappings of the meeting and its details in terms of presentation and structuring were marked by diversionary manoeuvres, accompanied by emotive rhetoric, both key features of the Modi style of governance. In the process, Modi and his ministerial colleagues seemed to turn upside down the very nature of the conflict that has built up in eastern Ladakh since early May.
Consider this: making his first direct statement on the happenings in eastern Ladakh, the Prime Minister stated categorically that India did not lose any territory to China in recent months. “Neither have they intruded into our border, nor has any post been taken over by them. Twenty of our jawans were martyred, but those who dared Bharat Mata, they were taught a lesson.”
Accentuating the emotional quotient, Modi went on to add: “Today, we possess the capability that no one can eye one inch of our land. India’s armed forces have the capability to move into multiple sectors at one go.... Till now, those who were never questioned or stopped, now our jawans stop them and warn them at multiple sectors. Our Army has been monitoring even those areas which were not attended to earlier at the India-China border.... Whether it is deployment, action, counter-action… air, land or sea, whatever our armed forces have to do to protect our country they will do.”
Modi chose to speak at the fag end of the conference, after which it was declared closed. So, there was no opportunity to seek clarifications on his pronouncements. Before Modi’s concluding speech, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar briefed the conference. This was followed by interventions by several leaders, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Chief Ministers Uddhav Thackeray (Maharashtra) and Nitish Kumar (Bihar).
A glaring characteristic of Modi’s final intervention was that it was completely at variance with what External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had recorded in his interaction with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on June 17. In that interaction, S. Jaishankar had said that Chinese troops had sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). He also recalled that in the meeting of senior military commanders held on June 6, an agreement was reached on de-escalation and disengagement along the LAC.
A statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) after that interaction said: “Ground commanders were meeting regularly to implement this consensus throughout the last week. While there was some progress, the Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC. While this became a source of dispute, the Chinese side took premeditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties. It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.”
A day before this, on June 16, MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said that the Chinese side had “departed from the consensus to respect the LAC in the Galwan valley”. He asserted that India was clear that all its activities were always within the Indian side of the LAC. “We expect the same of the Chinese side,” he said.
The import of all these statements and the give-and-take between the Foreign Ministers was, clearly, that incursions and violent engagements had taken place, accompanied by disputes about occupation of territories. But, in the June 19 conference, Modi’s contention was that “neither has anyone intruded into Indian territory nor has anyone captured any military posts”. So, what was the whole sequence of events that led to the killing of 20 Indian soldiers?
Even a cursory analysis of Modi’s statement would expose the clever play on words. His claim is that no one has intruded into Indian territory. Indeed, the LAC is Line of Actual Control and does not literally come under international border specifications. Thus, the region where the face-off took place is not exactly Indian territory. The second part of his statement says that no one has captured any Indian military posts. This is also in keeping with this tactic of obfuscation because there are no posts to be captured in the face-off region.
The defence expert and columnist Colonel (Retd) Ajai Shukla questioned Modi’s contentions on Twitter: “Did I see prime minister @narendramodi redrawing the Sino-Indian border on TV today? Modi said nobody entered Indian territory. Has he conceded to China the Galwan River valley and Fingers 4-8 in Pangong Tso -- both on our side of the LAC -- and where Chinese troops now sit. If, as @narendramodi said today, nobody entered Indian territory, what is all the fuss about? Why the military-to-military dialogue, why the diplomatic talks, why the military disengagement, why the deaths of 20 soldiers? Twenty Indian soldiers gave up their lives while evicting Chinese intruders from Indian territory. But Modi says nobody entered Indian territory. Then where did these soldiers die? Is Modi saying – like China is saying – that they crossed into China? Was Prime Minister @narendramodi knowingly dissembling? Or was he incorrectly briefed? Or does the government believe it can say anything and get away with it in this post-truth world?”
Responding to similar questions on a television debate, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Rajiv Pratap Rudy squarely branded anybody raising questions on a statement made by the Prime Minister as anti-national. “Many things may have been said by many people, including experts and senior officials of the government and the Army at different points of time. But when the Prime Minister makes an official announcement, that is the final word. Anybody who disputes that is insulting the country, doing a great national disservice,” he argued.
However, defence experts like Shukla and a number of retired senior Army officers are of the view that Modi’s obfuscation and wordplay are working against the national interest on the Sino-Indian border. A former Lieutenant General told Frontline : “That is the real national disservice. In one stroke, the Prime Minister has given up a position strongly maintained by successive governments India has had since Independence and given superior credence to the Chinese position.”
Questions raised by opposition
Political leaders, including Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, Congress leader Manish Tewari and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Singh questioned Modi’s contention. Sanjay Singh said: “Has India dropped its claim on the Galwan Valley? If China has not occupied our territory then what are we discussing with China?” Yechury said: “Then there is no conflict? Why have our brave soldiers been martyred? Why this all-party meeting? This blatant obfuscation of the real picture is yet another act of criminal cover-up by the Modi government. It may give the ruling dispensation some temporary reprieve, but the doubts are real and are bound to come back to haunt the country sooner than later. So, the raising of questions would continue.”
Manish Tewari, too, flagged the importance of continuing to raise questions. He did so after Modi concluded the all-party onference with his “final intervention”. Earlier in the day, Modi and his associates completely bypassed and brushed aside Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s pointed questions with utter disregard. Asserting that her party had some specific questions for the government, she had said: “On which date did the Chinese troops intrude into our territory in Ladakh? When did the government find out about the Chinese transgressions into our territory? Was it on May 5th, as reported, or earlier? Does the government not receive, on a regular basis, satellite pictures of the borders of our country? Did our external intelligence agencies not report any unusual activity along the LAC? Did the military intelligence not alert the government about the intrusion and the build-up of massive forces along the LAC, whether on the Chinese side or on the Indian side? In the government’s considered view, was there a failure of intelligence?”
She went on to add that the government had kept everyone in the dark about many crucial aspects of the crisis and that it should have convened the all-party meeting immediately after May 5 when it got information about the Chinese build-up on the border. “The entire country would like an assurance that the status quo ante would be restored and China will revert back to the original position on Line of Actual Control,” she said. Modi and his colleagues did not respond to any of pertinent questions and points she raised. However, many leaders of the ruling National Democratic Alliance welcomed her assertion that “the entire nation fully supported the government in the steps to defend India’s territorial integrity”.
Before the June 19 conference, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi raised pointed queries on Twitter asking why Indian soldiers who were killed were unarmed on the China border. “How dare China kill our UNARMED soldiers? Why were our soldiers sent UNARMED to martyrdom?” he asked in his tweets. Unlike the indifference that was meted out to Sonia Gandhi’s questions in the conference, Rahul Gandhi’s drew a response from Jaishankar: “All troops on border duty always carry arms, especially when leaving post. Those at Galwan on 15 June did so. Long-standing practice (as per 1996 & 2005 agreements) not to use firearms during face-offs.”
The courtesy that Jaishankar showed in engaging with Rahul Gandhi, was, however, an exception rather than the rule. Apart from the sequence of events over the May-June period, there are several instances showing how the Modi regime has systematically ignored specific pointers and warnings about China-India border issues.
Pointers not heeded
The fate of the 2018 parliamentary Standing Committee’s report after the Doklam crisis of 2017 is a case in point. The report titled “Sino-India Relations Including Doklam, Border Situation and Cooperation in International Organisations” was submitted to Parliament in September 2018. The committee, chaired by Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, had stressed the need for a comprehensive border engagement encompassing the operations and functioning of the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), subsuming all established mechanisms for confidence-building, including border personnel’s meetings, flag meetings, meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on border affairs (WMCC) and other diplomatic channels. The report underscored that it would always be better to have a sense of “healthy scepticism” while dealing with China and had expressed discontent over the neighbouring country’s “deliberate encirclement policy of India”.
The report also pointed out that China kept the border and LAC disputes alive in order to throw India off balance whenever it desired: “In so many respects the track record of China does not inspire confidence in the Committee. The Committee would therefore strongly desire that India should prevail upon China to ensure that application of the principles arrived at are given due respect and adhered to and that sanctity of the process should be scrupulously maintained by China.” It expressed concern that Chinese infrastructure built uncomfortably close to the tri-junction had not been dismantled and stressed the importance of building better ties, in this context, with other neighbouring countries.
“Despite the Ministry’s ambivalence on whether this reflects some sort of a deliberate encirclement policy of India by China, the Committee would be inclined to see it as nothing less than a veiled containment policy. Therefore, it is imperative that India should urgently take up the business of re-energising its ties with our neighbouring countries. It is clear that we now have to contend with the possibility of some of the countries in our neighbourhood playing the China card as leverage in their relations with us,” the report said. In October 2017, Jaishankar, who was then Foreign Secretary, appeared twice before the panel, which had Rahul Gandhi, the Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) Supriya Sule and the BJP’sFeroz Varun Gandhi, Raghav Lakhanpal and Swapan Dasgupta as members.
Jaishankar deposed before the panel that there had been “constant activity in many sectors every year”. Making a specific reference to the Ladakh sector, he said that in the case of Pangong Tso, this was a lake where the two countries’ respective perceptions of each other’s Line of Actual Control did not coincide. “It is like a long lake. They believe the line is here; we believe the line is there. So, there is an overlapping area of dispute in terms of what each party says,” he said.
Clearly, what the world has witnessed unfold in eastern Ladakh was not unexpected or unforeseen. There were sufficient pointers and warnings. But, in an individualistic pursuit of defence and foreign policies, essentially dictated and controlled by the Prime Minister, these were not addressed properly.
What took place in the June 19 meeting, and also the run-up to it, has exposed several fault lines of the Modi government and its approach to governance on a range of issues, including management of defence matters and diplomacy. The conduct of the meeting once again highlighted the Modi government’s pathetic record in terms of engaging with the opposition in accordance with the principles of democracy.
The omission of parties such as the AAP and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) from the conference underscored the impertinence with which the government treats important opposition parties. The AAP is the ruling party in the national capital of Delhi and the principal opposition in Punjab. The RJD is the principal opposition in Bihar, which has borders with Nepal, the country which has recently developed tensions in its relations with India and is closely associated with the current Chinese leadership. Evidently, omitting both these parties was bad politics and bad diplomacy.
Cumulatively, what all these omissions and commissions expose starkly is the resounding crisis of leadership that India is going through. A closer inspection of the policies and governance measures have time and again revealed that this crisis of leadership has existed right through the first five years of the Modi government. But the second term, which followed a bigger majority for Modi and his party in the May 2019 general election, has been marked by an alarming descent to what could well be described as plummeting to the nadir.
Not just the developments in eastern Ladakh, but the colossal messing up of the handling of the COVID crisis, causing immeasurable hardships to the poor and the marginalised, especially lakhs of migrant workers hailing from northern and eastern India, and the manner in which Nepal, hitherto a neighbour of long-standing friendliness, adopted openly adversarial diplomatic postures have all underscored this phenomenal plunge in terms of leadership. The still unexplained tragic happenings in Galwan and Pangong Tso have aggravated a sense of foreboding.