Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping have seen interesting developments in domestic politics this month. Alongside, controversy again arose about Chinese disturbance of the status quo at the 3,488 kilometre-long Line of Actual Control separating the two nations across the Himalayas. This interplay of domestic politics and diplomacy needs examination.
The controversy was triggered when a second Chinese settlement of around 60 buildings was sighted close to Arunachal Pradesh border at Shi Yomi district.
This was not there in 2019 and is located six kilometres inside India’s claim line. The earlier block of 100 odd homes were seen on the banks of river Tsari Chu in Upper Subansiri district, where Chinese have had adverse possession since 1959. A further controversy brewed when contradictory statements emerged from the Indian ministries of defence and external affairs. Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Bipin Rawat held that the US report on a Chinese village on the Indian side of LAC was wrong. The spokesman of the external affairs ministry felt otherwise. Because the alignment of the LAC has not been agreed upon by both nations it is possible for conflicting versions from India and China on any settlement close to it. But it is surprising for two Indian ministries to differ as surely India has a clear understanding about its claim lines.
The Chinese conduct is in keeping with their approach to their maritime claims in the South China Sea. There, too, they have first made historically unjustified claims, followed by island grabbing or even island building over submerged rock formations. Finally, they have manned and even fortified these artificial island clusters. This has often been referred to as Chinese territory-grab by salami-slicing method. India’s cautious approach in vociferously protesting these Chinese tactics is at clear variance with its jingoistic approach to Pakistan, where even drones flying across the Line of Control (LoC), basically employed by smugglers, are turned into Pakistan launched attempts to incite Sikh militancy in Punjab. Perhaps this variegated approach is due to the sheer difference in the military differential between Pakistan and China. Also the Pakistan threat can be used to buttress bigotry within India, which helps vote consolidation. The Chinese threat is counterproductive as it deflates the Prime Minister’s image as a strong leader.
Connected to this jostling at the LAC are domestic developments in both nations. In China the sixth plenum of the communist party’s central committee, consisting of top 300 leaders met on November 11 and approved the “historical resolution”. This is only the third time in the communist party’s history when this has been done. It happened in 1945 to hand vast powers to Mao Zedong and isolate his rivals. Again in 1981 Deng Xiaoping used it to bury the excesses of the Mao period and reassess the haloed past realistically. Now, in the centenary year of the Communist Party of China, Mr Xi has used the same mechanism to consolidate his control over all levers of power. This paves the way for his assuming a third term as President, which would be a clear break from the precedent prescribed by Deng Xiaoping.
To emphasise his new status and China’s emergence as the only rival to the US, a virtual summit was held between President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden. China has been seeking the acceptance of this kind of bipolar arrangement as it feels it is well on its way to be the world’s largest economy and “a great modern socialist nation by 2035”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced a different domestic dilemma. In the euphoria of his 2019 decisive electoral win, he had been pushing through a controversial legislative agenda to further the Hindutva grand plan as well as reform the economy, especially the agriculture sector. Three farm laws were rammed through the parliament in September 2020 in the garb of rationalising the market for agricultural products. The resistance to them began initially in Punjab and then spread to Haryana, which are the two states where rice and wheat are procured at a minimum support price (MSP). Punjab and Haryana’s Green Revolution was kicked off in 1965 as Norman Borlaug introduced high-yield varieties. The revolutionary change in agricultural production not only brought prosperity to the farmers but also made India self-sufficient in grains. But it also brought ills like excessive and repetitive use of fertilisers and pesticides as well as water, which has ruined the soil and depleted and polluted the subsoil water reservoirs. In addition, many other Indian states today produce grains in substantial quantities. Facing a situation of glut and pressure from World Trade Organisation that wheat procurement on prices supported by the government infringed their rules, the government decided to free the agricultural markets from state control. But this reform was undertaken without taking stakeholders into confidence or due debate in parliament or examination of the legislation by parliamentary committees. Neither was it linked to any plan to transition agriculture in these states to the next green revolution involving fruits and vegetables to reap benefits from greater global demand for these products. As a result the agitation spread from Punjab to Haryana and further to Uttar Pradesh. Attempts to use identity politics to defame farmers failed. Farmers also showed the resolve to sustain their agitation and camp on Delhi’s borders through rain, fog and summer heat.
With elections approaching in Punjab and even more crucially Uttar Pradesh and convergence of BJP’s main opponents with farmers, the options for the Modi government began to shrink. Unlike in China where President Xi’s power grab has strengthened his control, in India PM Modi has suddenly backtracked by announcing on Gurupurab, associated with Guru Nanak, his government’s decision to annul the three farm laws. But other issues still remain on the table, including the statutory guarantee of MSP for wheat and rice. Uttar Pradesh, where this scheme was never applicable, is now also seeking it. Thus, the BJP faces the tricky prospect of seeing the farmers’ protest lingering till state elections.
President Xi’s graph may be politically ascendant but may be tested on the economy. PM Modi, contrariwise, is getting tested politically though the economy seems to be on the mend, provided another Covid wave does not arrive this winter....