Public statements by prime minister Narendra Modi, defence minister Rajnath Singh and home minister Amit Shah on the brutal killing of 20 Indian soldiers by the Chinese military in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan valley on June 17 all had glaring omissions. They didn’t refer to the aggressor, whose sovereign army had perpetrated the attack and shattered the negative peace along the Line of Actual Control, nor did any of them condemn the attack or vow to retaliate.
Not one top leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party or central minister visited the injured soldiers, thrashed with iron clubs and nail-studded batons, or paid homage to the fallen men whose bodies were brought down from Ladakh and taken directly to their families. There have been promises that national pride won’t be compromised but the drama that usually surrounds the killing of armed forces personnel has given way to a tamed response.
The bravado displayed by the Modi government in words and in actions as recently as last year, following the horrific attack on CRPF men in Pulwama, Kashmir, has ebbed drastically in case of the standoff with China. BJP leaders known to issue stern warnings to Pakistan have sought refuge in a guarded, rational approach in responding to China. Notice the absence of cries of anguish by the BJP and its coterie over the killings, the first along the LAC in 45 years.
For a party that popularised the trope “our soldiers are dying at the border’’, the prevailing silence is stunning.
Imagine how it would have been if the deadly clash had taken place along the Line of Control, with the Pakistani army. The media, the public, the political parties, and the government’s cheerleaders would have gone ballistic as they always have in the past after every terror attack.
GD Bakshi, a retired major general who is the most vituperative of primetime TV defence experts debating Pakistan, was heard shrieking that the Pulwama attack was an , and for the first time since 1971 national outrage had raised the possibility of .
Bakshi’s infamous temper and theatrics have mellowed in TV debates on the confrontation with China. He’s careful not to use the word “war”. In fact, his harshest remark so far has been calling the Chinese military “” and warning that India would have to open fire at the LAC if the Galwan valley clash was repeated.
Asked if he had dropped the ball on shrill war cries, Bakshi told Newslaundry he was still angry over the loss of lives and hoped the government would not take it lying down. “I would be very happy if we retaliate strongly and raise costs for the Chinese because they can’t keep doing this tamasha every year,’’ he said calmly. The armed forces were mobilising, he added, but cautioned that “before we fight on the two fronts, we have to think it through and plan”.
Such rational discussion is unheard of from Bakshi when it comes to Pakistan. Indeed, it’s rarely witnessed in TV news studios where anchors and panellists alike regale in war mongering, making slanderous claims and boasting about teaching the neighbouring country a lesson to remember.
The BJP has successfully cultivated the politics of jingoism, politicised the armed forces, publicised counterterror operations and military deterrence – all to score political points. Then why is the hypernationalistic vigour reserved for Pakistan not being extended to the other neighbouring adversary? Why is the BJP government so wary of publicly taking a tough stance against China?
“Because we don’t know the PLA’s military capability and it’s an unknown entity. We have always focussed on the Pakistan military and know how it will retaliate, using what resources. We don’t know how China will fight and that’s why we have collectively decided to temper down the rhetoric,’’ explained the strategic expert and co-author of Dragon on our Doorstep, Pravin Sawhney.
He added that what the domestic audience was used to with respect to Pakistan – the feedback and statements from the leadership drumming up hyped narratives – wasn’t coming in case of China. “And they are stunned.’’
Since 2014, the government machinery, from the top down, has projected itself as uncompromising on issues of security and presented Modi as the tough leader who is ready to put the interests of the nation above all else. A cursory look at official statements and reactions issued in the wake of the terror attacks in Gurdaspur (2015); Pathankot, Uri, Nagrota (2016); and Pulwama (2019) shows the use of strong language in warning Pakistan. The most commonly used phrases include “strongly condemn”, “”, “befitting reply”, “”, “make them ”, “”, “teach them a lesson”, “double force retaliation”, “”, “punish the perpetrators”, “those who harm us will ”, and “we are losing ”.
Following the Uri in September 2016, the director general of military operations assured that the army was prepared to thwart any designs and had the “desired capability to respond at a time and place of our own choosing”. A by the three service chiefs after the Balakot attack in February 2019 pledged to “deter, prevent and defeat any misadventure by Pakistan”.
Such language has been absent from statements about confrontations with China in recent years. In 2017, then foreign minister Sushma Swaraj even told the Rajya Sabha that India wouldn’t use any “aggressive language” in its response to the standoff at Doklam. The wisdom, she said, “was to resolve issues diplomatically’’ as “war was not a solution”.
Indeed, war with any country is not a sound response, but that hasn’t stopped Modi from using the threat of war for domestic posturing, once proclaiming that India could now defeat Pakistan in a .
The use of strong words against Pakistan has helped the BJP evoke nationalistic sentiment domestically, drum up hawkish narratives of Hindu pride and patriotism. Happymon Jacob, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University who studies the India-Pakistan relationship, said the Indian mind had been tuned to believe that Pakistan’s citizens and the state were evil because they had orchestrated terror attacks on Indian soil. “Making Pakistan a villain has political utility for the BJP, it suits its ideology and it can make use of the rhetoric in elections,” he added. “No such utility exists for the China which is a far more superior military and economic power with which we have large stakes in trade and commerce.’’
The vilification of Pakistan which had escalated after the 2016 “surgical strikes” reached fever pitch after the Pulwama attack and the retaliatory Balakot strike, with the BJP using it in the 2019 election campaign. At a rally in Kaliabor, Assam, on March 28, Amit Shah retorted to a thunderous applause, “To those killing our soldiers, what should we do? Peaceful discussion or a befitting reply? If we have to protect the borders of this country then only BJP and our leader, PM Modi, can do the job.’’
On May 9, Modi asked new voters to take a pledge to dedicate their “first vote to soldiers martyred in the Pulwama attack”.
Pakistan and the counterterrorism operations aimed against it are a significant factor for the BJP’s transient political gains, but excessive national attention to it distracts from real national security challenges. For this, Jacob faulted the bureaucracy and other state institutions, which recognise that China is the real challenge but have failed to persuade political parties to look out for India’s long-term strategic interests. For that will involve facing the uncomfortable reality of confronting Beijing and working to build and capacities first. Political parties have always focussed on agendas that win them the next election.
There is a stark difference in the political and approaches of the government towards unresolved border disputes with Pakistan and China. The BJP government has tied the scope of bilateral relationship with Pakistan in the framework of , halting completely. Internationally, at the United Nations General Assembly, India has labelled Pakistan “” in response to Islamabad’s barbs regarding human rights violations in Kashmir.
Interestingly, when it comes to China, the government has maintained that any dispute will be resolved diplomatically. Its China policy, India’s foreign ministry has said, is guided by the principle that “peace and tranquility in the India-China border areas is an important prerequisite for the of bilateral relations’’ as also the commitment to finding to matters such as Beijing misrepresenting Indian territory on its maps.
Modi has described the India-China relationship as being one of and boasted about his personal rapport with President Xi Jinping.
Jacob said since Pakistan was conventionally weaker to India, it was pushed around through words and actions. That wasn’t the case with a greater power such as China. This is evident in how the Indian foreign ministry frequently issues demarches summoning Pakistan’s diplomats over ceasefire violations at the LoC but rarely uses the diplomatic tool to lodge protests against China over the PLA’s intrusions. India’s Himalayan border with Pakistan in the west and China in the east has remained disputed for over six decades. along the International Border and the LoC are as common as by China along the LAC.
Manohar Parrikar, the former defence minister, had urged the armed forces to retaliate with against Pakistan. Rajnath Singh has denounced Pakistan as , someone addicted to beatings, and warned that Indian will retaliate with to every single shot fired from across the border. On the other hand, in the aftermath of the and reports about Chinese incursions in Arunachal Pradesh in 2014, Parrikar had downplayed it as a , adding that such transgressions due to differing perceptions of the LAC.
Nearly 20 years ago, Sawhney wrote The Defence Makeover, which opened thus: “China is not a military threat in future, it is a threat now”. It was written in the context of China’s border management and infrastructure, allowing it to rapidly mobilise military forces. Beijing has since built a transport network and military infrastructure. In spite of this, Sawheny pointed out, India has stayed focussed on Pakistan, creating a deadly cocktail of religious nationalism and patriotism. “We are happy bashing Pakistan, a country we should actually be friends with. Keeping two war fronts is not manageable and China will never resolve the border as it has leverage over India.”
Jacob agreed that India was focused on a tactical challenge by Pakistan when it should be looking at the much greater strategic challenge posed by China. “Policymakers should try and resolve outstanding issues with Pakistan and move on so that one side of western front is closed,” he said.
But so far as political ideology and domestic politics remains aligned with national security, it’s hard to imagine New Delhi deflating the security crisis and normalising ties with Pakistan in order to deal with China. The faceoff in Ladakh is forcing India to confront the hard realities of the real challenge at hand. It should serve as a lesson for the policymakers to revise the national security agenda.