Remember two pictures which were accompanied by gushing commentary?
The first was India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping sitting on a “jhoola” together in Gujarat. The second was Xi with Modi posing in his usual cos play dressed in a veshti in Mamallapuram resort in Tamil Nadu.
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Modi, even as Gujarat Chief Minister, had an excellent relationship with China, which unlike the West did not ban his entry post the 2002 Gujarat riots. Before the border tensions broke with China, which led to the loss of Indian lives the Prime Minister’s Office routinely used to speak of a “special relationship” with Xi with whom Modi has had more than a dozen meetings.
So how did Modi fall into the “Nehru trap” of China?
While Modi and the BJP make no secret of their derision for India’s first prime minister, Modi today is facing a crisis, which is identical to the one Nehru faced in 1962.
And, Modi who will turn 70 next week, may have his legacy marred by mishandling China much the way Nehru’s was spotty on his inability to suss the Chinese correctly.
As the Chinese border continues to be heated, Modi has done two things.
The first of which is vintage Modi play - he has withdrawn from any public engagement with the border stand-off. The face of the crisis is now Rajnath Singh, Defence Minister, who has been engaging with Russia and China, and External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar, who has been negotiating with China.
This follows Modi’s unreal claim post the Galwan valley shout-out in late May when 20 soldiers including an officer died. Two months ago Modi made an unbelievable statement at an all-party meet on China. He said in Hindi and I quote: “Na wahan koi hamari seema mei ghus aya hai, nahi koi ghusa hua hai. Nahi hamari koi post kise doosrey kei kabse mein hai” (no one entered our borders, no one is inside our border. Nor has any Indian post been captured).”
This seems an inexplicable clean chit given by the prime minister no less as the border skirmishes continue. Yet, after this Modi has made no ostensible display of his stewardship of the China policy. This is similar to the way he has handled the pandemic of COVID-19, which will soon see India becoming the world number one in growing cases.
Initially, Modi was the face of the lockdown. He came on television and asked for thali banging, a solidarity light show and likened it to a 21-day battle.
Once the migrants’ crisis exploded and spread of coronavirus became uncontrollable, Modi withdrew himself. Now like the Chinese aggression, he no longer talks of COVID-19.
What this arguably does is shield Modi from public censure as he pitches himself as a sage above mundane affairs like border aggression and disease.
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The problem is that the Chinese have also sussed Modi and his desperation to always make the right headlines. Hence, the testing of Indian resolve much as it was done in the case of Nehru. Normally, the fact that you have an excellent personal relationship with your global counterpart should be a win-win for your country. Yet despite all those picturesque summits and meetings, Modi is unable to directly talk to Xi.
Much like Nehru, Modi fancies himself a global leader sitting at the high table as I repeatedly have argued here in my SWAT analysis. He likes to boast of his excellent equations with leaders such as “my friend Barack,” former United States president Barack Obama.
But, besides, photo opportunities these relationships need to deliver for India.
Currently with the border crisis at its worst, the jury is out on Modi’s foreign policy legacy. Perhaps, a picture with the Dalai Lama will send the right message to a watching world.