From when Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited leaders of SAARC nations to his inaugural in May 2014, each of his foreign policy initiatives were accompanied by a mirroring domestic narrative aimed at enhancing personal stature and bolstering political constituency. A running theme of the prime minister’s publicists has been that Modi secured greater ‘respect’, so subjective a term, for the Indian passport – suggesting transformation of ‘pariah’ to ‘most favoured individuals’.
Since September 2016 with the post-Uri terrorist strike, the prime minister also established that he indeed brooked no assault on Indian territory and was very much the personification of his muscular nationalist image, projected by spin doctors. The “ghar mein ghus kar marenge” (will hit them after entering their territory) line Modi uttered with great effect during the post-Balakot poll campaign played a major factor in BJP’s win in the 2019 parliamentary polls.
Difficult image to live up to
The sales pitch, however, haunted the party and government throughout the eyeball to eyeball situation, followed by the fierce hand-to-hand combat, and the current phase of ‘mutual disengagement’ with China. Uncharacteristically, Modi opted for the discretionary route in wriggling out, for the time being at least, from a military conflict with China. Additionally, the prime minister blinked first, although it was made out that it was Modi’s ‘roar’ on July 3 from the secure XIV Corps headquarters at Nimu outside Leh that messaged China to alter possible plans of further escalation and instead talk a phased mutual withdrawal.
The official PR machinery has however been, at the least, half truthful while detailing the developments. DH in a recent editorial pointed out, “There is little reason for India to draw satisfaction from events.” Additionally it argued that China “has gained territory overall in the ‘mutual disengagement process’… By agreeing to this farcical pull-out (of/by Indian troops), the Narendra Modi government seems unable to reverse the Chinese land-grab in Ladakh.”
The inability of the prime minister being able to live up to the self-created image of a vengeance-seeking leader has been painfully evident from the time the state of affairs with China in Ladakh became public knowledge in early June. The starkest evidence of this was Modi’s statement of bravado, at the all party meeting with the startling “no intrusion” claim. Faced with criticism, the PMO put out a clarification that made clear little and only obfuscated matters further and the observations regarding “Chinese presence on our side of the LAC pertained to the situation as a consequence of the bravery of our armed forces,” made the PM’s position more vulnerable to criticism.
The important question was what DH had flagged, that if Indian troops were on ‘our’ side of the LAC, “why are we pulling back”. It has become self-evident that the Indian government’s ‘perception’ of the LAC has altered over the course of recent weeks. Acceptance that the Indian bravado, displayed to the neighbour on the western frontier, was not put on display, at least for the moment, delivers a body blow to the ‘redeemer’ of India’s pride.
Defence and diplomacy no longer sacrosanct
The moot point however is – in the context of India having, for all practical purposes, ceded territory to China – can any of the opposition parties capitalise on this and mount a sustained campaign on this issue? Defence is a holy cow and a tradition existed for long of political parties speaking in one voice with the intention of projecting national consensus and unity. Although this practice has come apart in recent decades as politics became more competitive and defence and diplomacy stopped being sacrosanct matters, the situation has worsened since 2014.
It must be factored that unity and consensual politics on matters of national security were forged to a great extent, at the initiative of the government of the day. There is a long tradition of taking principal opposition parties on board, either formally or informally, depending on the seriousness and sensitivity of the situation. All party meetings were neither used as occasion to address the nation, nor events where the prime minister held back information.
Be discreet in criticism
But, because this government, and also in its previous tenure, speaks in the first person singular, criticism of the regime has become unavoidable even while the situation is unfolding. However, the Opposition this time requires to match Modi’s discretion with circumspection when it comes to responding to the government’s steps. Either while highlighting shortcomings in government response, or when overtly criticising the prime minister, Opposition leaders must be cautious in their responses.
In the aftermath of so-called surgical strikes and after the air strikes in Balakot on facilities of non-state players operating from Pakistani territory, the Opposition parties were depicted as anti-national forces and being hand in glove with forces inimical to India. On both occasions it was possible because Opposition parties raised an element of doubt on claims of ‘victory’ by the government. The manner in which reservations were voiced, made it appear that Opposition leaders almost wished that India’s had not succeeded in the retributive strikes.
It is true that the vocabulary of politics has become coarse when compared to the past, but it would be prudent to be critical, yet couch it in political jargon and niceties. The situation with China and the awareness among people, except Modi’s diehard loyalists, that the prime minister has not come clean, makes it imperative for opposition parties to refrain from sledgehammer tactics. The contrast in former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s statement when he reminded Modi of his “solemn duty” and that the prime minister could not permit Beijing to “use his words as a vindication of their position” and that of others in Opposition ranks must be noted.
Rahul Gandhi may have secured more cheers for utterances like “Surender Modi” but such a line of criticism remains politically counterproductive. Nationalism is a sensitive and a politically over-charged subject in India. Criticism of the government cannot morph into personalised attacks on Modi because till the situation with China continues unfolding, he represents India and undermining the office of the premier, shall weaken India’s position.
Even within the media, there are opinions, harsh and nuanced. Statements and speeches of political parties need not sound like newspaper editorials or op-ed pieces being read out. But there is no harm in pulling out a Brutus and keeping mentioning the salience of the prime minister’s office and his authority.
Singh after all never questioned the entitlement of Modi to use words and take decisions, but merely reminded him of the power he wields and responsibility he carries. Impatience is not a virtue of astute political players and coupled with the failure in managing the Covid-19 pandemic, Opposition parties shall not be short of opportunities. But for that they must consistently, but gently, expose the failure of Modi’s China policy. A prerequisite for this however, is to set their own houses in order and get their priorities right. How this can be done and who requires to make the most effort, remains a different matter.