Enemy inside gates, why is PM reticent?
Monday night's clashes in Ladakh's Galwan Valley that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead, including 16 Bihar commanding officer Colonel Santosh Babu, prove several points.
One, China intruded into Indian territory, ie, the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control of the 3,488-km India-China border.
Thus, India requires nothing less than for Chinese troops to retreat from the Galwan Valley to the pre-April status quo ante.
Also, China needs to vacate the Pangong Tso Lake where its troops, in “large numbers” (to quote defence minister Rajnath Singh), have ingressed 8 km from Finger 8 (where Chinese troops previously stopped) to Finger 4 (where Indian troops previously stopped), and show no signs of “disengaging”.
Two, the government has been economical with the truth regarding the situation in this remote region. It claimed there had been no intrusion, and that was simply not true.
Much of the establishment has played along with the government's lies, be it former bureaucrats speaking of a Chinese strategy of “two steps forward, one step back” that we saw in Doklam exactly three years ago, or the supine media that vaguely spoke of several dozens of Chinese casualties as if to mitigate the shock and horror of losing 20 of our own boys.
If this continues, a sceptical public will run out of trust in the government, which would have catastrophic consequences as the nation collectively grapples with the coronavirus pandemic as well as a fast-sinking economy.
Three, an otherwise garrulous Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not uttered a word on the Ladakh developments till Wednesday afternoon, when he pithily told a meeting of chief ministers on the Coronavirus pandemic that the soldiers lives “would not have gone in vain” and the India was capable of giving a “befitting reply”.
These are disposable lines. The PM's overall taciturnity has consequences. It does nothing to reassure or calm anxious citizens. After all, the Chinese intrusion is likened to the infiltration that led to the Kargil war of 1999 and might be worse. He should address this. His reticence may also be misinterpreted abroad, especially in Beijing and Islamabad.
Four, the Ladakh events prove that diplomacy, no matter the size of the country we deal with or the complexity of the issues, is best firmly grounded on established institutional processes, and not on some nebulous and misguided notion of “personal chemistry”.
Yes, the latter can supplement, even help smoothen the former, but should not replace it. This is a lesson, and a metaphor, that Galwan lucidly if harshly teaches us.
Going forward, neither India nor China can afford an escalation of hostility. The only path left is de-escalation, even if the room to manoeuvre is so severely constricted by Monday night's death toll that the de-escalation is painfully slow.
Since the local commanders have not been able to peacefully disengage, despite the Army chief's assurances, it is clear that political intervention is urgently required. The foreign ministers have to engage to de-escalate, as early as possible.