Doklam
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

M K Bhadrakumar |

My good friend from old times, Saeed Naqvi has written a blog on India’s Doklam standoff with China where he discloses, inter alia, that only the Americans have been briefed by South Block on this vexed topic. That is entirely plausible, given the unipolar mindset of the Indian elite.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar should brief the entire diplomatic corps in Delhi also on the Doklam standoff.

Unsurprisingly, Saeed proceeded to suggest that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar should brief the entire diplomatic corps in Delhi also on the Doklam standoff. It is a thoughtful suggestion – but, perhaps, Saeed made it unwittingly.

The point is, do we have a consistent version on the Doklam standoff, which we can share with world capitals? Such briefings have to pay attention to details and strategic ambivalence is impermissible, lest the credibility of our case weakens.

As for the public discourses by the Indian media and by our strategic pundits, they generate more heat than light.

Yet, so many aspects of the situation in those tangled mountains beyond our Sikkim border remain shrouded in thick fog, and neither Delhi nor Beijing apparently talks about it openly. As for the public discourses by the Indian media and by our strategic pundits, they generate more heat than light.

Interestingly, Arvind Subramnian, the Chief Economic Advisor to the government, had lamented recently that in the Indian public discourses, original, bold thinking is lacking and even candid articulation is a rare occurrence. Let me reproduce the relevant extracts from his VKRV Memorial Lecture at New Delhi on May 11, 2017, titled “Competence, Truth, and Power: Macroeconomic Commentary in India”:

  • In fact, the MOF [Ministry of Finance] and RBI [Reserve Bank of India] is far from the only bodies that give advice. Assessments of the macro situation are — and must be — the result of a far wider process, in which inputs are also provided by experts in the private sector, academia, and civil society. In each case, experts could be Indian or foreign. As an insider, I am an eager consumer of the opinions of outsiders. Indeed, as CEA, I have now read a fair amount of commentary by analysts and journalists. What I see is a clear pattern. And it is a worrisome one.

My central thesis is this: much of this expert opinion, and not infrequently, is liable to be compromised. In short, like Emile Zola criticizing those who had unjustly framed a decorated soldier in 19th century France, J’ACCUSE!

Instead, they censor themselves, and in public fora are insufficiently critical and independent of officialdom—whether the officials are in Mumbai or Delhi.

What is my criticism? My claim is that experts often hold back their objective assessment. Instead, they censor themselves, and in public fora are insufficiently critical and independent of officialdom—whether the officials are in Mumbai or Delhi. To the extent they offer criticism, it is watered down to the point of being unidentifiable as criticism.

 

For a variety of reasons, experts feel the need to stay on the right side of power—whether the RBI or government. So, before policy decisions are taken the experts tend to express the views they think officials are likely to take.  After policy actions, they try hard to endorse the decisions already taken.

Why do the experts do this? Why do they refuse to speak truth to power? If you ask them, they would say that they are just trying to be “constructive”. But I feel something else is at work. For a variety of reasons, experts feel the need to stay on the right side of power—whether the RBI or government. So, before policy decisions are taken the experts tend to express the views they think officials are likely to take.  After policy actions, they try hard to endorse the decisions already taken. As a result, we in the government do not really benefit from their wisdom. This is a serious problem because high-quality policy-making demands high-quality inputs and high-quality debates.

Unfortunately, Subramanian doesn’t have a counterpart in South Block – a cerebral mind and a professor at heart who would throw the gauntlet at our foreign and security policy experts and think tankers and taunt them to do some original thinking.

Sadly, an identical situation prevails in our strategic discourses on the foreign and security policies. Arguably, it is worse, because the strategic community is also spoon fed by the Indian establishment. Unfortunately, Subramanian doesn’t have a counterpart in South Block – a cerebral mind and a professor at heart who would throw the gauntlet at our foreign and security policy experts and think tankers and taunt them to do some original thinking.

The heart of the matter is that every single day, one is learning more and more details about the Doklam standoff. And they are coming in driblets – unfortunately, much of it is originating from the Chinese side. For example, from the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee tabloid Global Times, one could glean the following additional information just today only:

  • Bhutan’s one and only statement on Doklam (dated June 29) did not say anything to the effect that Thimpu had sought Indian help to tackle Chinese intransigence or that it consulted the Indian government.
  • Bhutan was unaware that Indian military was crossing the border into territory disputed between China and Bhutan on June 18.
  • The China-Bhutan border dispute is no longer such a hot potato. On the contrary, a consensus has already been reached between Beijing and Thimpu “on the practical geographical conditions and the directions of the boundary lines” between the two countries, and the residual issue now concerns only the completion of the “final delimitation.”
  • Beijing is getting very close to opening its embassy in Thimpu.

Incredibly enough, according to the Russian scholar, China had notified to India and Bhutan “well in advance” – at least a fortnight in advance – its intention to undertake road work in Doklam. But Delhi apparently chose to “disregard the notice.”

Again, what I learned today from a reputed Russian scholar at the Institute of World Economy and International Affairs (which comes under the Russian Academy of Sciences) makes me absolutely speechless. Incredibly enough, according to the Russian scholar, China had notified to India and Bhutan “well in advance” – at least a fortnight in advance – its intention to undertake road work in Doklam. But Delhi apparently chose to “disregard the notice.”

Instead, what ensued was that when on June 16, Chinese army engineers started building a motor road, on June 18 “Indian border units crossed a demarcated section of the border in the Sikkim sector and pushed the Chinese out of the disputed area”. The Russians scholar writes:

  • China’s current tough stance is explained by the belief that the Indian force has deliberately violated a demarcated section of the China-Bhutan border, which in fact amounts to an invasion of Chinese territory. What remains unclear is the project notification that was purportedly delivered by the Chinese embassy in New Delhi [to South Block] two weeks before the construction began. If this really happened, Beijing could consider the Indian military intervention as an exceptionally hostile response to a goodwill gesture.

The Russian scholar who is a well-wisher of my country and would never question the authenticity of India’s security concerns vis-à-vis Doklam (or China), also sounded a cautionary note:

  • Finally, we should not ignore certain revanchist sentiments currently at work in the New Delhi military and political circles that would like to gloss over India’s defeat in the 1962 war.

Indeed, even when they rudely said that our respected External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had “lied” to the Indian Parliament while making a statement on the Doklam issue, the government refused to be provoked. Indeed, even when they called our strategic asset, NSA Doval, a “schemer” who is responsible for the Doklam standoff, we chose not to argue.

Indeed, the government has shown exemplary restraint in its public utterances on the standoff with China. Indeed, there has been a studious reluctance to join issue with the Chinese rhetoric. Indeed, even when they rudely said that our respected External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had “lied” to the Indian Parliament while making a statement on the Doklam issue, the government refused to be provoked. Indeed, even when they called our strategic asset, NSA Doval, a “schemer” who is responsible for the Doklam standoff, we chose not to argue. Indeed, aren’t we like Penelope — the daughter of Prince Icarus of Sparta and the nymph Periboea, spouse of Odysseus, mother of Telemachus — who is celebrated in Greek mythology for her faithfulness, patience, and feminine virtue?

The bottom line is that our pundits and media folks should also know that comment is free but facts are important. They must make some effort, as CEA Arvind Subramanian counseled, to do original thinking.

However, if Doval and Jaishankar choose to accept Saeed’s advice, they must be prepared for some inquisitive questioning by the foreign envoys who may know much more than what I am learning. The bottom line is that our pundits and media folks should also know that comment is free but facts are important. They must make some effort, as CEA Arvind Subramanian counseled, to do original thinking. By doing so, they will be doing great service to the government and our country also in the long run – even if they risked landing in the dog house for a while.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.

Comments & Discussion