Will China ‘Help’ Modi Curb Political Damage? And At What Price?

Modi’s challenge is now is to secure a concession from China & offer him a fig leaf by making a token withdrawal.

6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

With his “neither anyone has intruded into our territory, nor taken over any post” statement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has staked the entirety of his muscular strongman image, so assiduously constructed and publicised over a decade and a half. This could negatively impact his political fortunes hereafter.

In the backdrop of the prime minister's promise to the people that the deaths of the slain 20 soldiers “will not go in vain,” Modi's startling concluding statement at the all party meeting on 19 June, followed by the unprecedented and formal claim by the Chinese government that the Galwan Valley was “located on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control”, is little but a letdown, especially for his supporters.

Realising the potential harm that could be caused to the personality and image of Modi, the Prime Minister's Office embarked on a damage control exercise and issued a statement on 20 June, claiming that “a mischievous interpretation” had been made of his remarks.

The worry however, is that the words of the premier are always interpreted by people at face value, and they do not go by semantics of high diplomacy.

When it comes to communicating with people on complex matters involving diplomatic, security and territorial matters, the prime minister has to be as direct as he can be during public speeches, otherwise, there could be a negative impact.


How Can Modi Neutralise The Sense of Dismay Sweeping Through His Supporters?

It has to be kept in mind that the renewed mandate in May 2019 was secured on the back of the claim of Modi being a leader who successfully practised the dictum of “ghar mein ghuskar marenge” (take revenge by entering the enemy's lair). To recall, the thrust of the 2019 electoral campaign was dramatically altered by the terrorist strike in Pulwama, followed by the retributive air strikes on terror facilities in Balakot.

Now, instead of seeking reprisal for the gruesome assault of Indian troops on the night of 15-16 June 2020, the prime minister has chosen not to militarily escalate the situation in the Ladakh region. His statement is against the unanimous viewpoint of several Indian strategic experts that the Galwan Valley was always considered by India as being located on its side of the LAC.

Rahul Gandhi's tweet on 20 June, flagging two questions, are likely to be asked by people over the coming days and weeks, even by supporters: Why were our soldiers killed? And, where were they killed?

Only in the unlikely event of the prime minister changing tack in his diplomatic and military response to China's latest moves, will he be able to neutralise the sense of dismay sweeping through his supporters, who had come to believe in his extraordinary power and capacity to secure ‘greater izzat’ (pride) for Indians and the Indian passport.

India-China Row: Modi’s Decision To Not Retaliate May Affect His ‘Maximum Leader’ Image

The astute politician that he is, Modi has always been aware that half the battle is won or lost by the sense of perception among people. This was why he cleverly crafted his alpha male image with a 56 inch chest size. From the time Modi entered public life, he adopted an upright posture, quite like Fidel Castro, as a one-time associate told me once, to convey the impression of being a ‘chauri chhati wala insaan’ (man with a broad chest).

During the 2014 election campaign, he mocked the one-time Uttar Pradesh strongman, Mulayam Singh Yadav, saying it requires a leader with a “chhappan inch ki chhati” (56-inch chest) to make Gujarat out of Uttar Pradesh.” He had just stopped short of thumping his chest, King Kong style.

The purpose of recalling this is to argue that people, especially supporters, are accustomed to seeing Modi as ‘Maximum Leader’ or Líder Máximo.

The decision to not head into confrontation with China, after raising expectations, will strike at this perception.

The decision stands in complete contrast to his posture during 2013-14 after being anointed as BJP's prime ministerial candidate. In one his speeches he warned Beijing to shed its “mindset of expansionism... I swear in the name of the soil that I will protect this country.” At the rally in Pasighat, Arunachal Pradesh, Modi had further thundered that “no power on earth can take away even an inch from India.”


Sense Of Betrayal Among Ex-Servicemen

This Reuters report had quoted an unnamed BJP strategist as saying: “The Chinese will understand the new PM is not a wimp and they won't do anything adventurous.”

Such now-embarrassing eulogies to Modi has the capacity to unendingly worry Modi's image managers and publicists. Their objective will be to ensure that he does not become the subject of ridicule and mockery. His stand on a range of subjects before he became prime minister and the policies he pursued, has already been flagged by political detractors on the social media.

But the bigger worry is the sense of ‘betrayal’ that has already been articulated by several former servicemen.

A tweet by Lt Gen Rameshwar Roy, former Corps Commander Jammu & Kashmir and DG Assam Rifles, is a pointer to the rising extreme sense of indignation and hurt in the ranks of defence forces. Gen Roy wrote: “Today is very unfortunate Day!! I thank my three stars that I am retired and my son is not in the Army!”

Bihar Lost Maximum Men in Galwan – Will This Affect Modi’s Poll Prospects In The State?

It needs to be recalled that the BJP secured substantial support from the large community of ex-servicemen, and the government's decision to implement the One Rank One Pension scheme was cited as a major 'achievement' during the 2019 election, and again during the prime minister's letter to the nation on completion of the first year of Modi 2.0.

Modi's decision not to further precipitate matters with China, at least for the time being, may eventually turn out to be for the good of the nation and him personally, by avoiding further losses to a nation considered to have greater firepower – but in the immediate political context, the situation is fraught with political losses.

Although the 20 soldiers who sacrificed their lives while clashing valiantly with Chinese troops in Galwan Valley, belonged to six different units of the Army, including three infantry battalions and two artillery regiments, the bulk of the fatalities and injured are from Bihar (16), which has lost its Commanding Officer Col B Santosh Babu and 12 soldiers.

Given that elections are due in Bihar later this year, Modi’s altered stance has potential to become a poll issue if people develop a sense that he did not act to honour the memory of the brave soldiers of Bihar.

Will China Give Modi A ‘Fig Leaf’?

Since 2014, Modi's foreign and defence policies have been shaped by keeping domestic politics in mind. But given the corner that he found himself in after a series of misadventures over several years, this is the first time that the prime minister has been unable to play to the gallery.

From the time he staked claim to become prime minister, first within his political fraternity, and later outside, Modi characterised himself as an unyielding leader who would brook no nonsense from neighbouring countries if they threaten India's security and territorial integrity. In contrast ,the BJP labelled Manmohan Singh as India's “weakest prime minister”.

The challenge before Modi now is to secure a concession from China and provide him with a fig leaf by making a token withdrawal from some part of the contentious territory.

But the million dollar question is: Will Beijing assist Modi in limiting political damage to his constituency? And, if they do so, will they seek a price for it?

(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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