Galwan incident was no mere 'security' issue; India's diplomacy needs to kick in with rigour to counter China
Historically, India's diplomacy had maintained the high ground of morality, persuasiveness and professional engagement that allowed it to 'manage' the restive neighbourhood and internal contradictions. Current relationships are not reflective of that ability
Historically, India's diplomacy had maintained the high ground of morality, persuasiveness and professional engagement that allowed it to 'manage' the restive neighbourhood and internal contradictions. Current relationships are not reflective of that ability. The backdrop of the Galwan incident and the accompanying dissonance in the entire neighbourhood is not just a 'security' issue; to posit it as that is sheer convenience and deflection. The gallant soldiers of 16 Bihar were just living up to their regimental motto of Karam hi Dharam (Work is Worship) — in that worship, many paid the ultimate price.
In close combat, soldiers move inch-by-inch, and where additionally bound by de-escalation agreements, still fight with bare hands and rocks in the 21st Century. To expect them to understand what led to this situation is nigh on impossible. Something somewhere has gone terribly amiss, because beyond China and Pakistan — even the Nepalese are not too fond of us either. Similar tentativeness lurks with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives.
After all, it is the same lot of professionals, competencies and strategies among the Indian diplomatic brass — then why suddenly is the engine of diplomacy stuttering? Either that engine's wherewithal has been choked from performing as per its required independence, or the engine driver is made to follow a new uncharted track, or perhaps the highest authority envisioning the tracks itself has decided on a new way of reaching the destination — or as it appears, all three of the above.
When the naturally slow-burning process of diplomacy that is predicated on detailed negotiations, long engagements and delegation of authority to experts, suddenly gets replaced by theatrical, 'gutsy' and blustery optics, it rattles the delicate framework.
As the low hanging fruit was quickly consumed, the country remained mesmerised by the speed, thunder and drama of the new diplomacy that 'asserts its stamp in global capitals' — but does it, really? The entire governmental-cultural-bureaucratic setup is trained to align to the new sensibilities-that-be, and the old fashioned across-the-table grind that typified international diplomacy became redundant. There is no longer an Atal Bihari Vajpayee to define the expansive vision and then give space, or a diligent Jaswant Singh to work tirelessly away from the glare of the cameras — fumbling occasionally, but never repeating mistakes.
This duo planned and carried out the nuclear tests knowing the global condemnation that would follow, and yet managed to return to the high tables of diplomatic morality, that were chiselled in Nehruvian refinement. The present-day dissatisfaction with everything in the 'past' also led to shortchanging of supposedly-insipid processes and formal protocols of the professionals, and was instead replaced by personalised stamps and charm offensives (unlike a Vajpayee, who practiced the same, but understood the finiteness of the same, as he then pursued hardball diplomacy of the professionals).
Perhaps today's leadership has been consumed by and is too committed to its own notions of the 'past' far too seriously, without realising that while the domestic cadres were being galvanised like never before, neighbours were murmuring expressions like 'big brother' all too frequently. The Ministry of External Affairs leadership was relegated to secondary responsibilities like responding to the citizenry's distress tweets or flying back nationals in quasi Entebbe-like operations — both important, though certainly not the foremost function of the ministry or its mandarins.
Perhaps no one could intervene and explain the suffocation felt on the streets of landlocked Nepal, on its perceptions of India's 'interference' or 'blockade' — as the nation was in throes of more substantial ecstasy, for when was the last time that an Indian prime minister could call the President of the United States by his first name (never mind the fact, that Barack Obama did not reciprocate in the same manner — which is Diplomacy 101). The lure and spectre of sudden and 'big announcements' that wounded the nation internally in executive decisions like demonetisation or more recently, the coronavirus announcements, was prevalent in external affairs too, with ministry officials doing post-announcement catch-ups.
The Chinese machinery is not nearly as disengaged within — it is an immensely calibrated network where the hands and feet (read: Military or People's Liberation Army) operate in perfect coordination with the mind (read: Professional diplomats and civilian leadership). The Chinese have a rare mastery in deceit and are forever unforgiving in their intent; they did so in 1962 and clearly again in 2020. Importantly, while Jawaharlal Nehru blundered and was made to pay for it, does 2020 look any different? More importantly, in the interim years with dispensations of all colours and ideologies, the lessons of 1962 were not forgotten — but the salubrious tea sessions on a swing by the riverside perhaps lulled us into believing otherwise about the Chinese. Who could dare put in a word on historical lessons that suggested otherwise?
Galwan did not happen overnight, the PLA is not a rogue-army that overrules the orders of 'Beijing' — it was a brewing and a deliberate situation for months, that culminated in what happened on Monday night. Distractions that work wonders in internal politics do not do so in international politics, as indeed no 'friend' in Washington or Moscow offers any clear support. International friendship is brutally fickle as it is essentially an exercise in posturing, nomenclaturising and meaningless 'body language'; it is not something to be banked upon.
Blaming others and the 'past' has a limited shelf-life, as the fine print of the current neighbourhood discontent does not point to Nehru anymore. Although the spin-doctoring may still be tragically tracing it all back to Nehru, as the last few years suggest, we refuse to learn from the past. The genteelness of Nehruvian intellectual charm offensives have been replaced by the larger-than-life personalised charm offensives — except that the end result is the same. The Chinese leadership smiled at the Sabarmati Ashram, even as its PLA conveyed another message on the border, simultaneously.
They quietly indulged and patronised India's renewed efforts, whilst walking away with a lot more than any reciprocal fairplay — look at the trade imbalance with China in the past six years. The exaggerated support drummed up internally to read gestures for meaningful policy, made it inadvertently difficult to reign-in the self-gratifying tendencies and 'applause'.
Today the contrast in the language, expressions and optics are strikingly dark and ominous, as China is not Pakistan — it speaks peace and sends in the PLA, meanwhile the Pakistanis spoke aggression and were made to pay for it.
China is a different kettle of fish; it needs to be professionally understood and 'managed'. And the most impactful way to do so would be to delegitimise it in the eyes of the world. China seeks moral legitimacy more than anything else — something India could deny. A tit-for-tat like Balakot will not work. De-escalation must happen, and China has to be named and shamed diplomatically, politically and morally — this is, in any case, hanging precariously in the eyes of the free world for its coronavirus narrative.
The needs of Indian military will need to be addressed without the media glare of commissioning weapons with coconuts and swastiks — our military has done exceptionally well, not because of what the government has done for it, but despite it. The year 2020 is not 1962, and the soldiers know it and can hold their own — the national leadership too needs to demonstrate similar steel, humility and professional commitment.
It is high time diplomats are allowed to function with the requisite rigour, sobriety and professionalism as Galwan was born out of an unsettled diplomatic issue, political issue, intelligence issue, geopolitical issue and has many other layers beyond just 'security'. This is something that warrants immediate introspection, reflection and correction by India's diplomats and national leadership.
The author is a retired lieutenant-general and former military secretary to presidents KR Narayanan and APJ Abdul Kalam
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