Sikkim standoff: Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping show maturity amid discord; Congress disappoints again

It would have been easier to dismiss the Opposition’s bluster on the India-China standoff had the party in question not been Congress — no stranger to power and statecraft. It becomes difficult to control incredulity when Congress leaders, led by their vice-president, indulge in bravado at a time when both countries are locked in their biggest face-off since 1962 and there is an urgent need for lessening of tension so that diplomacy may be allowed to work. That we could be staring at a lengthy impasse adds to the tension.

In fact, one would have expected parties to put their partisanship and political compulsions aside and back the government on solving a treacherous and escalatory situation foisted on us by an aggressive, expansionist superpower. If not handled with care, this conflict may pose a deep threat to our sovereignty, not to speak of Bhutan’s whom we are treaty-bound to protect.

By this measure, Rahul Gandhi continues to disappoint. His stubborn resistance to maturity, secretive absences, laissez-faire approach to politics and callous remarks on sensitive issues make it very difficult for others to take him seriously.

The Gandhi scion may have decided that (the reasons are unclear) now is the time for a rather muscular approach and has been hitting out at the prime minister for not being brash enough in his interactions with world leaders. Having called Modi a “weak PM” for not raising the H1B visa issue with Donald Trump (never mind that the biggest restrictions were imposed by US regimes when UPA was in power), he went ahead and asked the prime minister to speak up on China.

 

The Gandhi dynast didn’t specify his demands but perhaps he wanted Modi to corner Chinese president Xi Jinping at Hamburg and ask him to back off. Or at least ask China to leave Bhutanese territory during his G20 address. It is possible that Rahul Gandhi was simply trying to turn the tables on the Modi government and prove that Manmohan Singh was more macho.

His party spokesman soon chimed in.

 

It has often been said that Modi is the most talented politician of his generation. The truth is, he enjoys an easy run due to such glaring lack of political acumen among his rivals. Rahul Gandhi must be aware that heads of countries do not issue public comments on strategic issues, much less a border dispute. There are clearly demarcated departments. President Xi, for instance, has not commented on the standoff. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs has come out with a communiqué in response to press briefings from the Chinese foreign ministry.

It would seem from the comments that Congress wants India to match China in rhetoric. It is difficult to think of a more childish response when India needs to show diplomatic sleight of hand. So far, India has done the right thing by refusing to buckle under Chinese pressure and pull out the troops. New Delhi is well aware of the repercussions of such a precedent. India has also done well by not engaging China in a shouting match when it is clear that China — through alternation of status quo ante on India-China-Bhutan tri-junction, incendiary comments on media and relentless pressure through foreign office and diplomats — wants to rattle us.

China feels emboldened to do so because it enjoys a huge power differential with India in terms of military and economic capability. China feels that it needs to show no deference to India and, based on that assumption, has remained incensed at India’s continued diffidence. If not an equal, New Delhi considers itself a major power and a superpower-in-waiting. An understanding of this power dynamic is crucial to interpret the logic behind the moves China and India have been making so far.

The Indian political leadership and military establishment deserve to be applauded for their reticence which has pushed China into becoming shriller and shriller by the day. Beijing is rapidly ascending the escalation ladder and soon might be left without manoeuvrable diplomatic space. This is a potentially worrying development for India too, which needs to give China an escape hatch so that none of the parties appear to be “losing out” during the de-escalation process.

Towards this end, the impromptu five-to-seven minute meeting between Modi and Xi (where “a range of issues” were discussed) on the sidelines of G20 Summit on Friday and the mutually appreciative speeches during the BRICS Conclave later in the day are welcome signs.

Friday’s media statement by India’s Ministry of External Affairs states: “The Prime Minister appreciated momentum in BRICS under the Chairmanship of President Xi and extended full cooperation and best wishes for the BRICS Xiamen Summit. Concluding the meeting immediately after PM’s remarks, President Xi appreciated India’s strong resolve against terrorism and the momentum in BRICS introduced under India’s Chairmanship and through the outcomes of the Goa Summit in 2016. He also appreciated India’s success in economic and social development and wished India even bigger success.”

The meeting or the appreciative remarks may not immediately solve the impasse but these steps give an impression that both India and China are mature nations willing to engage with each other on multifarious issues without letting one issue hold their relationship hostage.

It also signals a willingness to let the carefully laid mechanism and channels between the two nations handle the dispute and find a way, supplemented by proactive diplomacy. India needs a tranquil, rational and firm approach from its leaders, not pantomime bravado.

 

 

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