Aditya Sinha: Paying for our bull in a China shop

May 14, 2018, 07:40 IST | Aditya Sinha

The Dalai Lama's humiliation, our encircling neighbours and, most crucially, the lack of Modi's signature bear hug, signify altered relations

In the two days of staged photographs, there is not one photo of Modi hugging Xi, his trademark personalised diplomacy of forcibly embracing other leaders. Pic/AP
In the two days of staged photographs, there is not one photo of Modi hugging Xi, his trademark personalised diplomacy of forcibly embracing other leaders. Pic/AP

Aditya SinhaOne of the better things during the Karnataka Assembly election, no matter who emerges the single largest party tomorrow, was Congress president Rahul Gandhi's press conference in Bangalore. You may not have seen it on TV. It is on YouTube, however. Rahul again comes across in a light different to the whispers about him during the past two decades, proving how it was all the doing of a well-oiled BJP machine. My favourite part was Rahul's take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent visit to Wuhan in central China for an "informal" summit with President Xi Jinping.

Here's what he said:
"I expected the PM to go to China as the leader of our country [and] speak to them about Doklam... He didn't say a word. [He] had a conversation with the Chinese President with no agenda. Are you telling me there's no agenda? There is an agenda, it's called Doklam; there is an agenda, it's called the Maldives; there is an agenda, it's called Nepal... The agenda is that we're surrounded on all sides; it's pretty clear. But you guys don't like to raise that, I don't know why.

"Our foreign policy has been completely decimated. And it's because the PM views foreign policy as an individual exercise. He's of the impression that he can go have a conversation with the president of China, or he can go have a conversation with the president of Nepal, and everything will magically happen.

"The PM needs to carry his own people with him. Are there any conversations going on with the finance minister, with the defence minister about this type of strategy? No. It's a one-man show."

Briefly: China tried to seize the Doklam plateau in Bhutan last year but after a 73-day standoff against our troops, it backed down. It has reportedly since built an infrastructure leading to Doklam. In the Maldives, China is displacing India: President Abdulla Gameen last year welcomed three Chinese warships, and last month hosted the Pakistan army chief. In Nepal, despite Modi's visit this weekend to promote Janakpur, Sita's birthplace, as a religious tourism spot, the Nepalese have drifted from us after India's five-month blockade in 2015 - we were pushing for greater political inclusion of the Madhesis. Modi is a villain for the Nepalese, as evident on social media.

China has seized advantage of India's pathetic neighbourhood behaviour, and, as Rahul said, has India surrounded. No wonder many think Modi went to beg Xi to keep relations calm in the run-up to the 2019 parliamentary election. That Modi's governance is election-oriented is no secret. Will the Chinese will play ball? When the two-day "informal" summit ended, the Indian side issued a statement and reportedly urged the Chinese to issue their own. Compare the two and you see a difference: while India mentioned a strategic direction to our respective armies to avoid tension on the Line of Actual Control, China only said the armies would follow past protocols. Joint statements are never easy, but individual statements are a piece of cake.

Modi had to supplicate himself because he cannot afford to go into the 2019 election after a showdown with China. Even a short skirmish will humiliate India. Unlike tension on the Line of Control with Pakistan, which benefits Modi since it can be dovetailed into communal rhetoric, tension with China gives Modi no benefit. Modi cannot help but humour China.

The Chinese were amenable to being humoured since they have now what they wanted in Doklam. China nowadays also wants to be seen as a responsible global power: hence it has nudged North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un into meeting his South Korean counterpart and, next month, with Donald Trump. China has also reached out to Japan, with whom relations are more complicated than with India.

Mainly, it was because Modi agreed to humiliate the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader who has lived in India since 1959. India prohibited its ministers from attending a Dalai Lama function (ironically, to thank India) and asked him to shift it from Delhi to his base in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. It was an insult; worse, he privately expressed the fear that he might be expelled.

The Chinese gave us time but they did not give Modi a hug. In the two days of staged photographs, there is not one photo of Modi hugging Xi, his trademark personalised diplomacy of forcibly embracing other leaders. Rahul Gandhi is right: Modi has decimated India's foreign policy. It's too bad that this and other aspects of his press conference were ignored by the TV media. But then, after Gujarat, Karnataka has been good practice for him. Modi's obsession with the 2019 election means that governance will suffer, so Rahul will get more occasions to show the public his mettle.

Aditya Sinha's next book, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, co-written with a former RAW chief and a former ISI chief, is out next week. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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