Jingoism May Be Useful For Elections, Not For Neighbourly Relations

Jingoism May Be Useful For Elections, Not For Neighbourly Relations

Whatever the election rhetoric, the next Indian government has a more complex and challenging regional and global scenario than bangle-taunts convey

K C SinghUpdated: Friday, May 17, 2024, 09:05 PM IST
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A representative photo of Indian and Chinese soldiers jointly celebrating the New Year in 2019 at Bumla along the Indo-China border in Arunachal Pradesh | File/PTI

Unlike the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, dominated by the Pulwama terror attack and India’s daring air-raid on Balakot, Pakistan did not figure in the first three phases of the ongoing polls. That changed after National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah’s remark that Pakistan shouldn’t be treated with contempt as it possessed nuclear weapons and did not wear bangles — a gender-biased saying indicating effeminate behaviour.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, still juggling multiple themes in his speeches, could not let escape the opportunity to pillory Pakistan and the Opposition. Campaigning during the fourth phase in Bihar he provocatively suggested that if Pakistan did not “wear bangles”, his government could compel them to. The imagery aimed to invoke the Balakot spirit, which BJP had failed to harness so far. Pakistan was back as an election theme, at least temporarily. The Opposition had been insulating electioneering from any issue that may feed the prime minister’s penchant for jingoistic posturing and rabble-rousing.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry responded at length on May 14. The new government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had so far been preoccupied with their domestic economic crisis while quietly awaiting the Indian electoral outcome to assess if the next government would modify the no-talks-amidst-terror policy of the last five years. A lengthy statement said “we urge Indian politicians to cease dragging Pakistan into their domestic politics for electoral gains and to handle sensitive strategic matters with the utmost caution”. They urged the international community to note that India was posing a grave threat to “regional peace and security”. The Indian jingoism, the statement surmised, betrayed a “reckless and extremism mindset”.

Home Minister Amit Shah contributed to this Pakistan-bashing after Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) figured in the news due to public protests and police action. The Modi government, he asserted, would reclaim the POK region in the near future. Between his political boast and the prime minister’s bangles-taunt lies a vast strategic space which can be debated, weighing the risks and benefits. Jingoism may be useful in elections when the public appears less than enthused by BJP’s standard divisive narrative, but the neighbourhood is more complicated than popular imagery conveys.

POK and the entire Kashmir issue is today not a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan as envisaged in the 1972 Simla Agreement. It may be recalled that when Article 370 was abolished in 2019 China had objected to India making unilateral changes regarding a disputed area which also involved China. Their military intrusions into Ladakh, starting with Galwan valley in May 2020, were a follow-up to their objections. China has invested heavily in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with the outlay rising from $ 46 billion to $ 62 billion. This corridor, connecting southern Xinjiang to Gwadar port in Balochistan, runs through Gilgi-Baltistan in POK. Therefore any attempt by India to militarily retrieve POK has the strong probability of China getting involved in the conflict.

The issue, in fact, that the Opposition has been raising and the BJP merrily dodging, is why the Chinese intrusions in Depsang Plains and Demchok have not been rolled back. Of course the government has strengthened the Indian military posture all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) after being caught napping in 2020. The government has also boosted infrastructure development along the LAC. But the military-to-military talks have not yielded progress after initial success in some parts of eastern Ladakh. Some would say that part of the success came when India surprised China by occupying dominant positions on the Kailash range. Clearly China wants to keep the territorial dispute unresolved as it enables it to keep India off-balance by periodic goading. For instance, on the eve of the Lok Sabha polls China decided to issue maps with not only Arunachal Pradesh shown in China but also with its habited areas given Chinese names.

India has been cautious in handling China. It has avoided joining US sponsored mini-alliances in the Asia-Pacific. QUAD, consisting of Australia, India, Japan and the US has stopped short of becoming what the Chinese feared, the Indo-Pacific’s NATO. Seeing Indian reluctance, the US created AUKUS — a trilateral grouping with existing allies Australia and the UK. Thereafter they are trying to draw in other Pacific powers. Leaders of Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Korea were invited for the NATO summit in Lithuania on July 12, 2023.

Therefore, whatever the election rhetoric, the next Indian government has a more complex and challenging regional and global scenario than bangle-taunts convey. Logically, when confronting two unfriendly opponents the aim must be to weaken their alliance. Pushing them into a closer embrace is self-defeating in the long run.

The Hamas attack on Israel has lessons for India — historical disputes can be ignored at one’s peril. Late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee would say you can choose your friends but not your neighbours. Pushing them into Chinese arms is a diplomatic failure.

KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

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