Less Than A month before the election in the world’s largest democracy begins on April 11, China’s Global Times newspaper ran an acerbic opinion piece headlined “Modi Playing China Card to Win Election”.
Academic Jabin T Jacob was not amused. On the contrary, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stayed studiously circumspect on China, he said. And there had been barely any election spotlight on the neighbour which India views as a strategic rival, said the associate professor of International Relations and Governance Studies.
The Shiv Nadar University don had earlier written a commentary for an Indian news website in which he lamented the lack of political spine to bring China into the campaign.
“There still is no confidence to bring it into electoral discourse, the way the Americans have done. This is despite the fact that the Chinese challenge to India’s political values, economy, and regional and global strategic interests is real and visible,” he wrote.
Despite the claim by the state-owned Global Times, India has barely moved the needle on China in the run-up to the polls.
Not many have taken up the cudgels against Beijing even though it last month again blocked the United Nations’ moves to designate Masood Azhar – chief of the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) – a global terrorist. The JeM is believed to be behind a February 14 bomb attack on a convoy of vehicles carrying paramilitary personnel in disputed Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
The Indian National Congress, the biggest opponent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has sporadically tried to heap vitriol on Modi over his reticence towards China.
“Weak Modi is scared of Xi. Not a word comes out of his mouth when China acts against India. NoMo’s China Diplomacy: 1. Swing with Xi in Gujarat 2. Hug Xi in Delhi 3. Bow to Xi in China,” Congress chief Rahul Gandhi tweeted after the UNSC vote.
But apart from a smattering of reports, the fire Gandhi tried to light has not spread. Media attention was, and still very much is, on neighbouring Pakistan. The BJP’s foreign policy agenda in this campaign has been on nothing else, as the party hopes to ride on heightened nationalist sentiments.
While China’s all-weather alliance with Pakistan and the challenge of dealing with its increasing influence in the Indian Ocean are issues that exercise the Delhi elite from time to time, these febrile topics have receded into the background in this election.
Public memories are short. No one is talking about the 72-day military stand-off in 2017 over the Chinese constructing a road in Bhutan’s Doklam, claimed both by Bhutan and China.
Modi’s relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping have been steadily improving with four meetings last year alone, one of which was to arrive at an understanding on Doklam. Modi’s critics have accused him of doing little to get the Chinese out of Doklam, despite suspicions they are continuing to construct roads.
Instead, Gandhi has chosen to use China as a counterpoint and a poster boy of what India could have achieved in job creation and the economy if it were in charge.
In Tamil Nadu last month, Gandhi said he would ensure the southern state competed with China as a manufacturing hub if his party won. He also did not tap into the gloom in the state’s nearly-decimated fireworks industry in Sivakasi – which manufactures 90 per cent of India’s fireworks – partly caused by the import of Chinese firecrackers.
But even Gandhi probably realises he has to walk a fine line, given that BJP members once labelled him a spokesperson for China.
When he met Chinese ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui during the Doklam stand-off, BJP’s Venkaiah Naidu – then a minister in the Indian government and incumbent vice-president of India – attacked Gandhi for keeping it under wraps. He came under attack again last August when he took a pilgrimage to Mansarovar Lake within the Tibet autonomous region.
But beyond these low-wattage strikes, both sides have steered clear of the Chinese dragon in the room.
“China complicates the narrative because it goes beyond the Hindu-Muslim binary and involves structural issues of international politics. China’s involvement means that voters will have to take the call: any person with a long-term approach to Indian foreign policy as well as Indian domestic politics will have to pay attention there,” said Jacob.
“In the case of Pakistan, you can get into emotional slanging matches. In the case of China, you have to push harder to prove you are doing the right thing or you are doing enough. To push China away from the national discourse has been a conscious attempt, in my view,” he said. “It is a very short-sighted approach, because ultimately your bigger challenge is China, not Pakistan.”
The BJP’s national vice-president and head of its policy research, Vinay Sahasrabuddhe said as much. “Pakistan has been indulging in … terrorist activities. That has not been the case with China, at least not in the recent past. We have a grievance with China [about its actions at the United Nations’ Security Council] and our foreign ministry people have voiced our concerns,” he said.
“We are not on the same page in so far as the Chinese assessment of terrorism in Pakistan is concerned. China might be indirectly coming in the way of prevention of terror, but Pakistan is proactive,” Sahasrabuddhe said.
Pallam Raju, a general secretary in the Indian National Congress’ foreign affairs department, said political parties did not think keeping China on the agenda would be a vote-winner. The former Minister of State for Defence, who has contested elections since 1989, said he had yet to see an election where it mobilised voters.
“The focus is so much on domestic issues – farmers, jobs – the threat perception recedes into the background. In terms of threats, the country only looks at wars or terrorist attacks. They happen across the Pakistan border and we don’t associate those with China.”
But the ostensible lack of voter interest might have more to do with politicians reaching out for easy targets and simple arguments because at least one poll suggests voters do care about China.
Delhi-based research institute the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, whose national election studies are widely cited, have had pollsters asking voters who they regard as India’s enemies. “China is on the minds of the people. The biggest enemy is Pakistan and these days, China pops up at three or four on that list,” said director Sanjay Kumar.
Kumar said it suits the BJP’s strategy of Hindu nationalism to focus on Pakistan. “Pakistan is an Islamic country. That would have a greater impact on the nationalist fervour.”
Where China does have an influence is in regional elections. According to Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, a visiting research associate at Delhi’s Institute of Chinese Studies, the Chinese presence across the border has spurred environmental activism in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.
Rahman said that over the past decade, the state government had signed 157 memorandums of understanding to build hydroelectric power projects. This is part of the Indian government’s strategy to fast-track dam-building to establish prior appropriation water rights over rivers originating in China.
“At the end of the day, Arunachal Pradesh is a resource-rich region. Any intervention has to be justified using environmental norms,” Rahman said.
“How do you do it without following due process? You use the looming fear of China to say that these interventions will protect the people. New Delhi is asking the people of Arunachal to forego decision-making about the environment in order to secure the nation,” said Rahman.
For now, Jacob is not buying the line that the BJP’s rank-and-file are mouthing about not being worried about China. “China has done exactly what they wanted to do – they supported the Pakistanis, they blocked the motion at the UNSC and they sent aircraft to Pakistan on its national day,” he said.
“None of these were raised by the government at any point. The line within the government has been that: ‘We have to be patient.’ This doesn’t make sense; it’s because the BJP has no options left to explore.”