A domestic quandry and an international border dispute are different battlefields, but they may both test PMâModi the same way
Nitish only returned as CM with Lalu's support; in 2014, Nitish was also swept away by the Modi wave. Pic/PTI
Ironically, the way that the People's Republic of China is aiming to use the current stand-off in Doklam to cleave the special relationship between Bhutan and India, is similar to the way that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to pry Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar from his senior coalition partner, Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal, over allegations of corruption against Lalu's son and Nitish's deputy, Tejashwi Yadav. It is the tactic of bullies.
To summarise the past month: Chinese troops were found building a road near the Doklam plateau, 15 kms from Nathu La, the pass that connects Sikkim with Tibet. Doklam is in Bhutan. China has long claimed it, even offering to swap two other disputed border areas with Bhutan in exchange for Doklam. The plateau on this side of the Bhutan-India-China border trijunction; China claims the opposite. Bhutan protested against the Chinese road and asked India to help; Indian troops have since June 16-18 held Chinese troops at bay. Besides the Indian Army chief's initial brag that we could fight a two-front war (the other front against Pakistan), we have been quiet, preferring low-key diplomacy. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, the special representative on border talks, will meet his counterpart on the 25-26th. The Chinese, however, seem agitated and upset: they have closed Nathu La to Kailash Sarovar pilgrimage, they have "offered" to mediate on the Kashmir dispute, and they have been publicising the 1962 war that we lost. (Our first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, died of the heartbreak caused by China's perfidy and the defeat.)
Analysts say Doklam's proximity to the "chicken-neck" corridor that links most of India to the Northeast is a major reason to resolutely oppose any Chinese attempt to change the status quo at the border trijunction. Incidentally, we lost the 1962 war without losing that corridor. It is yet again an antediluvian military approach: the Chinese have an array of modern options against India, including increasingly levels of intensity of warfare at various points of the border. On the other hand, India is no longer a walkover.
American analyses believe the overriding Chinese objective is to weaken the Bhutan-India relationship. Presumably, Modi and Doval and Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar are alive to this. Clearly, China's main aim is to rattle Bhutan enough so that Thimphu makes conciliatory noises. Beijing's objective would then be served; they would lower the temperature. New Delhi's objective is to ensure Thimphu does not blink first.
The link of a tense border development to a domestic battle in Bihar might seem tenuous, but like Xi Jinping, Modi hopes that Nitish will blink soon. The PM and party chief Amit Shah probably see the mess that Lalu Prasad finds himself in as a win-win situation. At the least, it will keep Lalu Prasad off-balance, which is important since he is the one major politician who has remained resolutely anti-Hindutva. Most others have compromised at some point or other, whether it is former Uttar Pradesh CM Mayawati, who was twice supported by the BJP in 1997 and in 2002; or West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, against whom the BJP is currently using its preferred tactic of vote-polarising riots, but who was part of AB Vajpayee's NDA government. Lalu cannot but be the lynchpin of Opposition unity before the 2019 parliamentary election, winning which is Modi's and Shah's primary objective.
The BJP would be best served if Nitish were to dump Lalu and take its support to keep his government going. For him, it would be political suicide. One, Nitish only returned as CM with Lalu's support; in 2014, Nitish was also swept away by the Modi wave. Two, the charges against Tejashwi convince only upper caste voters (I'm genetically from that vote-bank). The charges were brought by the CBI, which has as much credibility as China; even the Supreme Court called it a "caged parrot". It has also been building cases against Lalu's daughter Misa, but that is likely only going to energise the RJD.
Nitish must be weighing his options but frankly, betraying Lalu at this point serves little other than ensuring his tenure lasts until 2020. He must be aware that the other Modi – state BJP veteran Sushil Kumar Modi – is looking forward to one day becoming the Bihar CM, an aim shared by his PM and party chief. And Nitish must know that after he is forced to give up his dream of becoming PM, the BJP will never make him President of India. His only future is with the Opposition, and with Lalu.
These are likely similar to the calculations being made by the Bhutanese, that despite the pressure from a big, powerful force to the north, blinking first will get them nowhere. Let us see how long they are able to hold out.
Aditya Sinha's crime novel, The CEO Who Lost His Head, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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