The Modi Opportunity

By Vithal Rajan

The Indian Prime Minister is considered a strong man, even by his opponents. And it is only strong men who can deliver unpalatable solutions to their followers. More than fifty years ago the Algerian issue seemed intractable, and was pulling France down into a ruinous civil war. General Charles de Gaulle, who relieved Paris from the Nazis at the end of World War II, and the undoubted champion of French national pride, quickly negotiated Algerian independence as no other French leader could have at that time. Narender Modi, who has the unquestioned support of the Hindutva rightwing, retains a chance of solving the many problems that have bedevilled relationships over the last fifty years with India’s greatest neighbour. At least, that is what Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, might be expecting, and he has laid out an appropriate lavish welcome for his Indian guest.

India’s media and her equally vocal nationalists have taken little trouble to understand the Chinese or their policies. Their thinking remains mired in the Nehruvian myth that India is the untainted leader of the Third World, and any political opposition from another country is an ungrateful dastardly act. Their middle class naivety is matched only by that of the American populace which continues to believe that their government’s imperial depredations are nothing more than a kindly attempt to bring democracy to others!

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Xi Jinping stands at the pinnacle of Chinese power. He is President of China, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the head of the seven-man Standing Committee of its Politburo, and the Chairman of that country’s Central Military Commission. No one else in China has held so much power in his hands, other than Mao Zedong. Mao’s masterly mobilization of his country’s suppressed masses was converted into economic revival by Deng Xiaoping. Jiang Zemin, his successor, produced an astonishing bull run that brought China within striking distance of becoming the world’s leading economy. Social cracks that opened up were patched to some extent by the Hu-Wen duo who shared power after Jiang, bringing a human face to Chinese state capitalism.

The Xi government capitalises on all these economic thrusts and social corrections. Its goal is certainly to be the most dominant country in the world, and it has a much surer strategy than its rival America, which is desperately trying to retain its imperial power through vast military adventures, first in South-east Asia and now in the Middle East, despite the ruinous costs involved. China has taken advantage of America’s slipping position. Its great trade surpluses have weakened the dollar and enabled China to make unstoppable business thrusts into Africa and South America. This position has been reached by the concerted sacrifices of the Chinese working class. Relief can only be achieved by further expansion of markets for Chinese products. The very next step, which China will take when the moment is ready, is capital acquisition and economic control in the United States itself! The one country which still calls itself communist seeks domination through scrupulously followed capitalist methods!

The team that Xi heads has been chosen for this purpose. It has a sophisticated understanding of the West. His running mate, Li Keqiang, the Premier in charge of the State Council, and hence of government, is also his number two in the Politburo. Li holds a doctorate in economics and a degree in law, but during the Cultural Revolution received the honour of being tagged an outstanding person in the study of Mao Zedong Thought! The western-educated and sophisticated Wang Yi, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, is socially well-connected, his father-in-law having been secretary to Zhou Enlai. Yang Jiechi, state councillor in charge of foreign affairs, helps shape policy for China. He was one of the few Chinese students of his day at the London School of Economics, who went on to be ambassador in Washington, and came to be accepted by both Bush presidents as an intellectual of the realist  ‘Kissinger’ school. Xi’s wife and China’s first lady is Peng Liyuan, China’s well-loved singing star, who is also a WHO goodwill ambassador and a declared Buddhist, while remaining ‘an honorary general of the army!’

What Chinese expectations are of India has already been clearly spelt out by Xi during his Indian visit, though Indian media missed its importance. If China will be the world’s factory, India will be its back office. It is a reasonable prognostication considering that the backbone of India’s modernization was composed of its vast cadre of babus and accountants who managed India during its imperial times, and later as well, and the present-day follow through in the service sector by its IT professionals. China expects India to play an unassuming role as second fiddle in Asia.

China’s economic trajectory precludes any kind of military adventure. Even in the 1962 border war, China quickly and wisely gave up occupied territory, just as India did in its wars with Pakistan.  Even the United States operates its imperial ambitions through so-called local ‘rebels,’ shying away from putting its own ‘boots on the ground.’ Neville Maxwell, a rare unprejudiced historian, detailed the cause of the 1962 war as arising out of Nehru misunderstanding the Chinese position. A romantic aristocrat, Nehru saw himself as shepherding China into the international comity of nations and refused to discuss the MacMahon line with the Chinese. He was also perhaps unaware that the CIA was using Indian bases to send trained ‘freedom fighters’ into Tibet. In addition, the Chinese took as a hostile act the sanctuary given by Nehru to the Dalai Lama and his government in exile.

Today more than ever, what China seeks from India is not territory but a quiescent and peaceful long border. China seeks renewed assurance that India will not join an anti-China camp, or use its territories for activities aimed against China. The bellicosity of Indian nationalists is taken seriously, and their importance exaggerated in Chinese eyes more than it is warranted. China has continued to play the Pakistan card, partly to show how advantageous it could be for India to be friendly. In their signalling the Chinese remain ambiguously oriental. The case of the map of India as projected in China is no more than a ploy to show how things could deteriorate if wisdom does not prevail among neighbours. China pursues closer economic ties with India, and there is no doubt that the promised investment of $20 billion in India will be awarded to Modi. India’s MEA will stick to the border dispute just as Pakistan’s military brings up the Kashmir question when trade talks resume. India hopes improving trade relations will make Kashmir less and less significant for Pakistan, though the very existence of the Pakistani military elite is linked to keeping the problem alive. Indian leadership is under no such pressure, and Modi can seize the opportunity to open economic doors between the two countries, leaving the border issue over barren lands as an unimportant legacy of history. China has already tacitly accepted that there is no question of exchanging lands where there are settled populations. Turning the LAC into the international border will happen, but it will take time.

All this is not to say that there is no real threat if push comes to shove, as it did in 1962. Nehru’s mistakes stand as a warning how foreign policies can go badly wrong. Under Xi’s velvet glove is the iron hand of Guo Shengkun, minister in charge of public security, and Geng Huichang, who heads their secret service. Senior hardliners, Generals Fan Changlong and Xu Qiliang, control the army as vice-chairmen of the central military commission. Wisdom lies in Modi grasping the extended economic olive branch, shelving the border question for now, and restraining jingoistic supporters and NRIs from voicing America-initiated anti-China slogans. Some may be irked by India refusing to challenge Chinese leadership today, but as many athletes know the person who runs behind the shoulder of the leader has a better chance in the long run than he who is openly out in front!

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