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Doka La 'crisis': In trying to run a fake narrative, Congress did itself a disservice, imperilled bilateral ties

A rambunctious, cacophonous democracy, one of India’s biggest strengths during a national crisis is the way our constantly warring political parties leave aside their differences (even if momentarily) and rally behind the government of the day. This redeeming feature has been witnessed at various moments of history of this young nation. The struggle for independence may not have been a monolithic, linear movement but post-Independence, political, ideological rivalries have been frequently put aside to meet challenges to sovereignty.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

One may remember that Jawaharlal Nehru, the then prime minister, invited the RSS to take part in the Republic Day parade in 1963 for its role during the 1962 Indo-China conflict. During the 1965 war against Pakistan, the saffron organisation received praise for its work from former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. UPA 1 defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, for instance, in 2004, had defended on the floor of the House Atal Bihari Vajpayee's decision to delay airstrikes during Kargil to prevent the conflict from descending into a full-scale war between nuclear rivals.

It is too much to expect solid agreements in a multi-party democracy but there has always been an operational consensus that challenges to national security demand maturity and sensitivity in response. It was therefore surprising to find Congress president-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi throw caution to the winds and make a rash comment on Friday about China’s reported road construction activities on the Doka La plateau, suggesting that the NDA government had pulled wool over the eyes of Indians on the resolution of Doka La standoff.

Gandhi's tweet was followed by a coordinated social media campaign by the Congress where the Doklam resolution was further questioned. Spokesperson Kapil Sibal, during the daily AICC briefing, duly picked up the thread and demanded an explanation from Narendra Modi.

"Please tell the country as to what is happening at the border, especially along the Doklam plateau... What is going to be your policy in this regard and whether you will again invite President Xi to Sabarmati for a swing with him and have a good sleep," Sibal was quoted, as saying by PTI.

"What we are hearing now is that in the Doklam plateau near the tri-junction and 10 km within the chicken neck, a new road is being constructed and the same equipment is being used there. Reports also say that some 500 to 1,000 Chinese soldiers are also deployed there," added Sibal.

Soon after, in an article on its website, the Congress raised the question whether India has made "concessions" to the Chinese and acceded to its salami-slicing tactics. It was clear that the Congress was trying to create a political controversy out of a situation that still remains unstable, and putting pressure on Sino-Indian bilateral tie that is still recuperating from a severe trust deficit arising out of the most serious dispute since the 1962 conflict.

The Congress carried out its role as the chief Opposition party responsibly during the entire duration of the 73-day standoff. It showed restraint in behaviour, language and the entire political class showed a collective will not to let the situation escalate. This considerably strengthened India’s hands in pushing for a diplomatic resolution against a powerful and deceptive adversary. The resolution, which came by way of disengagement of troops from both sides from the faceoff site without a single bullet being fired despite relentless incendiary rhetoric from China, is as much owing to government’s resolve as it is the Opposition’s.

What explains, therefore, Congress’s sudden lapse into intemperate sniping over an issue that concerns national security? This question is more important than it appears. Did it arise out of a genuine fear that the NDA may have compromised India’s sovereignty? Does the Congress have a case in its accusation that road-building activities by the PLA near the faceoff site indicate an under-the-table deal by Modi where China gets to alter interminably the status quo while Modi claims a pyrrhic victory just to appear as ‘muscular’?

It isn’t clear whether Gandhi while raising questions about the stability of the Doka La resolution and Modi’s "motive", relied on data other than some reports that appear to be ambiguous and misleading.

The key contention in the report tagged by the Congress vice-president in his tweet — that sparked off the controversy — seems to be news of Chinese attempts at widening an existing road on Doka La plateau. This in itself is unexceptional and holds little strategic significance for India as long as the 28 August status quo ante is met -- that involves no troop presence in within 150 metres of the standoff site, no construction of permanent structures and no widening of the road south of Sinche La ridgeline between Batang La (India’s claim of tri-junction point) and Gymochen (Chinese interpretation) towards Jampheri Ridge that is close to India’s so-called ‘chicken’s neck’.

If Chinese road-widening activity and troop presence do not violate these conditions, then 28 August status quo holds, and there is no reason for any alarm. The NDTV piece, which Gandhi mentioned in his tweet, is vague on specifics but nowhere does it mention that post-Dokalam consensus has been violated. The report claims that "China has now shifted its unused road construction material North and East of the face-off site" and is widening a road "barely 10 kilometres from the location".

It is to be noted here that China has long claimed sovereignty over Doka La plateau and has engaged with Bhutan, the co-claimant, in 24 rounds of inconclusive discussions. PLA has regularly patrolled the area and had constructed the road as early as 2003 as part of its well-worn strategy to change facts on ground and claim sovereignty post-facto. The Doka La resolution hinged on China agreeing not to extend the road south of tri-junction area (which triggered India’s vulnerability), it didn’t involve China carrying on with construction activities elsewhere on the plateau.

If this is clear, then the entire Congress argument falls apart and Gandhi and Congress' insinuations are exposed as ill-informed jibes aimed at cheap political point-scoring which may end up souring further India's ties with China at a time when both nations are gingerly reengaging with each other.

China, expectedly, bristled with indignation at the suggestion that its latest construction activities harm India’s sovereignty in any way (it doesn’t). PTI quoted its foreign ministry spokesperson as saying: "There is no dispute. The Chinese border forces have been patrolling in the area of Donglang (Doklam), exercising their sovereign rights and safeguarding territorial sovereignty according to the historical boundary." The Ministry of External Affairs, too, in a short statement clarified that there has been no change in status quo ante.

Congress' profligacy with words have clearly irritated the Chinese and we can do without these irritants in ties at the moment.

The key question, therefore, is why did Congress jump the gun and tried to build a narrative that Modi government has ‘sold India short’ based on unverified reports? It betrays a deep anxiety on Congress’s part that Modi might run away with all Doka La accolades.

Gandhi needn’t feel so insecure because as has been already mentioned, India was able to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis because it displayed a collective political will, and in this, as India’s chief Opposition party deserves as much credit as the government.

Sadly, Congress of today is small in health and spirit compared to the grand old party of yore, helmed by leaders equally small in stature. The ham-handed attempt at creating a controversy where there is none only reinforces the truth.

Updated Date: Oct 07, 2017 19:47 PM

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