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Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Xi as new Mao? India & China face testing time

DECCAN CHRONICLE | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Published on: October 13, 2022 | Updated on: October 13, 2022

An unprecedented third term for Xi Jinping as the all-powerful general secretary of the CPC seems to be the likely answer to perceived challenges at home and abroad. (Photo: AP)

Mao Zedong walks again. Engrossed as the whole of China is in the 20th National People’s Congress due to begin next Sunday, the 2,296 delegates who represent an estimated 90 million members of the Communist Party of China (CPC) are bound to keep the closest watch on how the encomiums that Prime Minister Narendra Modi lavished on 18th century Maratha chieftain Shivaji as the "father" of the Indian Navy affect the grand ambitions that his successor nurses.

An unprecedented third term for Xi Jinping as the all-powerful general secretary of the CPC seems to be the likely answer to perceived challenges at home and abroad. It would silence those who seek to revive the debate on the market economy. It would also meet Dr Henry Kissinger’s speculation that Beijing might "recalibrate" its policy on the Russia-Ukraine crisis to cope with the wall of Western opposition. The importance India attaches to sea power, as evidenced by the projection of a new naval ensign amidst considerable propagandist rhetoric, is relevant in this context. In Chinese eyes, India’s role in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework -- both seen as part of the American-led attempt to contain China -- may offset membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Eastern Economic Forum and Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) groupings. The United States is accused of drawing a red line around those disputed islands in the South China Sea that China unilaterally developed into support bases for military operations so as to show who is the paramount power in Asia.

Mr Modi’s compulsion to demonstrate that his BJP alone can end "1,200 years of slave mentality" may also feed Chinese suspicions. Whether or not the Maratha fleet boasted 60 warships and 5,000 men, the claim that it had "frightened" the colonial powers also provides a desi counterpart to Zheng He, the eunuch admiral who sailed to Kozhikode in 1406. That the Chinese sailor was born Ma He, a Muslim, might make trumping him all that much sweeter.

Perhaps an India that is trying to be all things to all people needs such diversions as much as China battling economic sluggishness at home and Western political and economic pressures abroad. Washington’s latest action against a Mumbai firm that had the temerity to trade with Iran showed how little store can be set by pleasantries such as the courtesies to which external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was treated only days before.

Not that Mr Modi, who had toured Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka in March 2015, is the first Indian leader to appreciate the Indian Ocean’s strategic importance. The covert and semi-covert operations that both Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi sanctioned revealed an acute awareness of the wry English witticism that the three pivots of the British Raj were to hold India, to hold the sea lanes to India and the conviction that God was an Englishman. It is often forgotten today that the Cabinet Mission which then British PM Clement Attlee sent in 1946 asked India to accept responsibility for defending Singapore as part of the price for Independence. The British reasoned that if Rajendra Chola could cross the seas in the eleventh century to attack the Sri Vijaya kingdom in Sumatra, establish dominion over the Malayan peninsula and build substantial trading links in China, some ambitious Southeast Asian potentate, or an outside power with a foothold in the region, could repeat the adventure in reverse.

Whitehall regarded the Indian Ocean as a "British lake" because it saw the arc from Suez to Singapore as India’s protective "glacis", vital to its defence. The 2004 tsunami that devastated millions of lives, from India’s Coromandel coast to Aceh in Indonesia, confirmed the view of K.M. Panikkar, the Malayali historian and diplomatist, that India and Southeast Asia are "connected integrally in their political, social and economic life". The Second World War reminded everyone that a region which borders China and links the Indian and Pacific Oceans is essential to India’s security.

Hence the Navy’s importance. No matter how Mr Modi packages his naval programme, it is born of the concern with which India received news of Chinese submarines docking in Colombo in September and November of 2014.

Other signs of an increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region inspired agreements to secure "development rights" at Agalega in Mauritius and Assumption in the Seychelles. This continued the strategy of the Cholas who did not have a standing navy but whose admiralty boasted designations like Tandalnayagam of the Karaippadaiyilaar "commander of the forces of the seashore", and Kadalkolamitantaan, or "one who floated while the sea was engulfed". The historian R.C. Majumdar argued that Chola naval battles were basically land battles fought on ships, or "kalam", a term that was used in Rajendra Chola’s inscriptions.

Shivaji enjoyed other precedents. Generations of Bengalis were brought up on the magic of Satyendranath Dutta’s poetry translated by Dwijendralal Roy: "Ekoda jahar Vijaya senani helai Lanka korilo joi". (Once there was a warrior whose army easily conquered Lanka -- honour the victorious Prince Vijay as one of India’s earliest navigators). But no one matched Rajaraja Chola and his successors in establishing an empire that was a military, economic and cultural power in South and Southeast Asia and entering into commercial and diplomatic ties with China’s Tang and Song dynasties as well as the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad.

If Mr Modi’s emphasis on the glories of Shivaji’s naval power is intended as a message for Beijing, it’s curious that he does not seem to have responded more firmly to China’s assertiveness on land too, something that Congress Party presidential candidate Shashi Tharoor has pointed out. It’s also noteworthy that both countries seem to be propelled by somewhat similar aims.

Mr Modi seeks to reaffirm the glory of a mythical past when ayurveda healed the world and India was revered as the global "Vishwa Guru". What is increasingly being called "Xi Jinping Thought" focuses only slightly more prosaically on a "historical mission" to prepare for "great struggles" ahead.

What the mission and the struggles involve are not yet clear. But the CPC’s journal, Quishi, as well as Study Times, another official publication, cite Mr Xi’s earlier speeches to indicate a "grand strategy" to strengthen China’s "revolutionary spirit" and restore the country to the forefront of global power by 2049. Whether as re-elected CPC general secretary or party chairman, a title that was last used in 1982, Mao Zedong’s successor will fling down the gauntlet for India and the world.