Modi Not Talking ‘Revenge’ Limits Options for Retaliatory Action

For Modi, events starting from clashes in eastern Ladakh on 5 May until 15-16 June, was a ‘closed chapter’ for now.

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Without doubt, the highlight of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's fourth Mann Ki Baat episode in the COVID-19 pandemic period was his assertion that those "who had cast an evil eye on Indian territory, 'had' been given a befitting reply."

This assurance to Indian citizens certainly conveyed the impression that for PM Modi, events starting from the clashes in eastern Ladakh on 5 May, maybe even earlier, until the violent exchanges on 15-16 June, in which both India and China lost troops, was a 'closed chapter' for the moment.

In his radio address, the prime minister conveyed that because Beijing had been at the receiving end of karara jawab (robust response) from India, there was no need for further action.

PM’s Message For China, The Indian Army & Voices in The Opposition

Modi, of course, simultaneously sent out a warning: “India knows how to maintain friendships, but it can also look someone in the eye and retaliate and give an apt reply.”

The prime minister also paid a eulogy to brave hearts in the Indian Army who had by their sacrifice, "demonstrated that they would never allow anyone to soil Mother India's pride."

These are tough words used by the prime minister, chosen to convey to supporters that he has taken ‘action’. This message was relayed to ensure his image of being a tough leader was not dented by criticism for ‘inaction’ voiced by some Opposition, principally his bête noire, Rahul Gandhi, and reputed voices among defence strategists and retired military officers, some of who served in very senior positions whose credibility cannot be questioned.

Modi Endorses ‘Boycott Chinese Products’ Campaign

With the front in Ladakh seemingly 'settled' as per the prime ministerial declaration for domestic consumption and the warning directed at China, Modi tacitly endorsed the 'boycott Chinese products' campaign. Significantly, however, he interwove this support as part of his 'vocal for local' campaign that he first unveiled during an address to the nation on 12 May.

It cannot be ignored, Modi has not so far, in the aftermath of China's rising belligerence in Ladakh, resorted to the language of 'revenge' which he typically used in relation to Pakistan, especially after terror attacks on Indian soil in September 2016 and February 2019.

The circumspection in Modi's rhetoric and response underscores reduced options for retaliatory action available to New Delhi while responding to Beijing's intrusion. This certainly was in contrast to Indian reaction to Islamabad's backing of non-state actors operating against India.

With the limited nature of options available before him, Modi focussed on rallying nationalistic sentiment behind him. As a tactic, he recounted not just the balidaan (sacrifice) of the deceased soldiers but also the response of the father of one of the dead: "He said that he would even send his grandsons to safeguards the Indian border".

Such resolve, Modi elaborated to enthuse people, "applies to each and every one of us. Our pursuits and endeavours should be in the same direction…we should strive towards enhancing the country’s capabilities and capacities in safeguarding our borders." And then, a political spin centred around the still shaky and lacking in detail idea of self-reliance. The prime minister's contention was such a self-sufficient India "would be a tribute to our martyrs in the truest, deepest sense".

This goal, Modi argued, can be realised by acting like the letter-writing lady from Assam. She wrote to the prime minister, he revealed, that after "watching what happened in eastern Ladakh, she has taken a vow…and the vow is that she will buy only ‘local’….and for the sake of ‘local’, she will also be vocal". There couldn't be a more explicit endorsement of the 'boycott Chinese' call from the highest levels of the government.

The prime minister brought in a moral dimension in regard to the state of affairs with China in a veiled manner by quoting a Sanskrit shloka. Without taking names, but barely disguising who the depiction is intended for, Modi said, “a person who is wicked by nature, uses education to foster conflict, wealth for conceit and strength to trouble others.” India, on the other hand, is depicted as a gentleman, for who “education is for acquiring knowledge, wealth for helping others and strength for protecting.”

‘For Centuries Tyrants Invaded India’

Modi did not miss reminding people that "for centuries tyrants invaded India" and threatened the "very idea, the fabric of Bharat" raising fears that this would be wiped out and the "nation's culture" would be annihilated.

The context of invaders is, of course, the present challenge vis-a-vis China, but the reference to the past BJP narrative of the “1200 years of slavery” cannot be ignored. This has been used by the party to construct the idea of a bygone ‘golden’ era that ended when Muslim kings who came to India during the medieval era and made it their home.

Undeniably Modi is continuing to attempt raising patriotic fervour and harness the sentiment to shore up his political constituency. From when Modi called for the Janata Curfew on 22 March, he has unceasingly tried enlisting people's support in each of his programmes.

On several occasions, he praised people for their collective acts of banging plates, ringing bells, blowing conch shells and lighting lamps. By dovetailing the campaign for self-reliance, that currently at people's level, is little beyond 'boycott Chinese products' drive, Modi has opened another front to enable people to secure satisfaction of having given a befitting reply to the 'intruder who has not intruded'.

This is the way Modi successively enrolled people into his and 'national' endeavours. Through various extortions in Mann Ki Baat, the prime minister aimed to safeguard his mass support.

An astute leader, Modi would certainly be aware of potential erosion in his support base as a result of questionable state response either immediately after announcing lockdown or when the economy is being kick-started.

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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