The Z Factor: The old ‘Foot in Mouth’ disease

The oldest law in diplomacy is that words matter. Words have started wars, or prevented them. They have cost nations their territory, or helped preserve it.

But words also help win elections – and in India, good politics at home often means bad politics abroad. Take the ongoing tiff between India and China, which has seen the government stumble over its own words. In mid-June, 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a violent standoff with the Chinese in Ladakh. While the Chinese blamed Indian incursions for the brawl, India held Chinese intrusions responsible. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar called up Beijing to complain that China had attempted to erect structures on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Yet, two days later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi contradicted his Foreign Minister by saying that “Neither has anyone intruded into Indian territory, nor are there any intruders”. The speech was picked up by the Chinese media as a vindication of Beijing’s position. A news producer at CGTN, a Chinese state-owned broadcaster, said that Modi’s statement confirms that the incident happened on Chinese territory. Beijing then went on to claim all of Galwan Valley – located on India’s side of the LAC – since Chinese camps were already pitched there.

Modi’s statement that day was just the standard populist message of denial: no one came, nobody attacked. All that the prime minister hoped to do was to point fingers at previous governments and imply that no one would dare attack India now that he is PM. But the collateral effect was to validate China’s narrative – of aggressive Indian soldiers waltzing into Chinese territory and getting themselves killed. In the days that followed, the foreign ministry had to release various clarificatory messages.

This isn’t the first time that Indian politicians have had trouble reconciling domestic rhetoric with foreign diplomacy. The list is too long to recount here. But in recent times, domestic politics has increasingly hurt India’s interests overseas.

Consider Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement in Parliament last year, which now reads like a preface to the current standoff in Ladakh. After abrogating Article 370, he said that his government would take back Aksai Chin from the Chinese: “We will give our lives for this region.” The Home Minister may have impressed his domestic constituency, but he failed to consult the military and the foreign ministry before shooting off his challenge to China. Beijing immediately protested, and started to prepare. Months later, as soon as the weather allowed them, they were setting up camps on Indian soil.

Elsewhere, as India quibbled with Nepal over Kalapani, the Indian Army Chief pish-poshed Nepal’s statements, saying that they were merely acting “at the behest of someone else.” (Imagine Richard Nixon saying that to Indira Gandhi during the 1971 war!) Nepal then promptly redrew its map – with unanimous support from all parties in its parliament – to include the entire disputed region as its own territory.

Let’s not even go into India’s public positions on the American presidential elections: There, the prime minister and many members of his party have openly endorsed Donald Trump – and burnt most bridges that existed with the Democrats.

In all the above cases, the government has played to the gallery at home – stoking misplaced national pride and jingoism, at the cost of India’s national security and foreign policy interests. Politicians say dangerously careless things because they believe that the voters reward dangerous carelessness – so long as it is what they want to hear. So, the onus is on the voters to tell them otherwise. The next time the Chinese come intruding, don’t blame the prime minister if he is not fully honest with you.

(c) 2020, Deccan Herald