The depressing drumbeat of bad news from Jammu and Kashmir and Bhutan’s Doklam plateau may or may not be a consequence of the policies or actions of Narendra Modi’s government. Yet it should serve as a wake-up call for the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which seems blithely oblivious to India’s external and internal security vulnerabilities as it single-mindedly pursues its implicit goal of Hindu nationalist domination of the political landscape. Take the standoff in Doklam. On the face of it, the Chinese decision to build a road through the disputed Bhutan territory — the “routine affair of a sovereign nation”, according to Beijing — is a challenge India could not have planned for. While flare-ups along the northeastern border are nothing new, the primary lesson of the 1962 war for India has been to avoid giving China any pretext to inflict yet another defeat.
It is also an indisputable fact that there was no serious Indian provocation in the run-up to the Doklam stand-off, unless its refusal to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative or attend the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May could be considered one. The question thus arises as to whether renewed religious and political tensions in India emboldened China to size up its rival on the picturesque meadows of the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction area.
With the level of violence confronting the army and paramilitary forces rising in Jammu and Kashmir, both along the Line of Control and in the Valley, the temptation for China to stir things up must have been strong, well before Indian troops crossed into Doklam on June 16 and physically blocked Chinese road-construction activity there. What possibly added to the temptation was the spectre of ferment conjured up by the rash of attacks on Muslims by cow-protection vigilantes and mobs, events that have projected a picture of instability and lawlessness which in turn has been magnified by social media and the international media.
The alarming news headlines would hardly have gone unnoticed in the corridors of power in Beijing, ever watchful of opportunities to pursue the “recovery” of territories it believes China lost to Western or Japanese imperialism. The government of Xi Jinping is, of course, scarcely a paragon of peaceful accommodation with China’s Muslim and Buddhist minorities, respectively, in Xinjiang and Tibet. Even so, the perception that the Modi government is inimical to minority rights serves the interests of China (and ally Pakistan) by virtue of its potential for exacerbating India’s religious and societal cleavages.
Against this background, Bhutan, which acts as a buffer between China and India’s Siliguri Corridor, may have provided the perfect location for a major power to wage a phony war on a rising but weaker rival without actually starting a confrontation. Whether or not this was the strategic calculation of the People’s Liberation Army is hard to ascertain, but what is clear is that the conditions for a little military experiment were conducive, to say the least.
To its credit, the Modi government has of late taken a number of administrative and legislative steps that are likely to prove economically beneficial in the long term. It is also courting foreign investors and technology companies, encouraging import substitution in the defence sector and promoting skill development and entrepreneurship to tackle youth unemployment. Where the government is falling short is in its understanding of the possible strategic repercussions of its narrow Hindu nationalist agenda and its attempts to control the message.
With everyone from regional politicians and police officers to army chiefs and TV news anchors trying to jump onto the bandwagon of hypernationalism, sound judgement and constructive criticism are being drowned out by the din of competitive patriotism on critical issues ranging from Kashmiri youths’ alienation to mob lynchings. Public discourse in India may be inexorably on an insular and inward-looking trajectory but, alas, in the age of Twitter, social videos and Facebook, what happens inside the country does not stay inside the country.
Furthermore, South Asia continues to be a rough neighbourhood where both state and non-state actors are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to stir up trouble. Going forward, India’s political parties, be they ruling or opposition, need to be disabused of the notion that they enjoy unfettered rights but no responsibilities in their pursuit of domestic popularity and power.
For his part, Modi, as the Prime Minister, needs to put — in words, deeds and tweets — the national interest ahead of the BJP’s interests, regardless of the exigencies of electoral politics. If the Doklam crisis ultimately succeeds in firing a warning shot across the bows of India’s armchair Hindu nationalist warriors, then it will have been a salutary lesson for them: Identity politics and polarising rhetoric may make them feel stronger, but they leave the nation weaker and vulnerable.