Perspectives: The Month Through India’s Eyes
Indian media coverage in the past month focused on a combination of domestic and international issues in light of India and China’s on-going border dispute, the sudden change in political landscape in the state of Bihar, and the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. As one would expect, views on the political changes in Bihar yielded divergent views from different publications. In contrast, coverage on India’s standoff with China, and the removal of Mr. Sharif was uniform, with most columnists and experts aligned in their opinions on these issues.
India and China’s Border Dispute
India and China have been involved in a month-long military dispute in the Doklam plateau region of Bhutan. While the current dispute centers around China’s efforts to build a road in the region, and India’s attempts to prevent this from happening, there are broader geopolitical factors at play, and neither side has backed down over the course of the month. Within this context, a number of Indian publications weighed in on the matter, offering their opinions on how India should look to resolve the situation.
Live Mint, while extolling the strategic importance of retaining Bhutan as an ally in the North East, argued that India must take a firm stance against China on the Doklam matter. “By challenging Bhutanese security, Beijing hopes to put a strain on the India-Bhutan “special relationship”. Should Bhutan perceive any sign of hesitation in India’s commitment to the alliance between the two countries, it would likely leave a lasting scar on the relationship—to China’s gain. To meet this challenge, India must take a hardline position against China in public, even at the risk of escalation. This is not to say that New Delhi should engage in a “game of chicken” for the sake of just appearing aggressive. Rather, it should recognize that the ultimate goal of this standoff is not to settle the immediate future of the Doklam plateau but to reassure Bhutan of the credibility of India’s commitment. Seen from this lens, the current crisis is not just a negotiation between New Delhi and Beijing, but an act of posturing for the benefit of Thimphu… It must take a firm stand in the current Doklam standoff to demonstrate its commitment to its ally. Whether by more heated rhetoric in the public or by increasing military presence on the ground, it must communicate to Beijing and Thimphu that it has much more to lose in the crisis than China has to gain. Its influence over Bhutan is a finite commodity, inherited by historical contingency. Once lost, it would be near impossible to replenish, especially when competing against a richer and more powerful Beijing.”
The Hindustan Times outlined a slightly different strategy, stating that India should take this opportunity to isolate China by building stronger ties with all of its neighbouring countries, and not just Bhutan. “Just as India seeks good relations with China and peace and tranquillity on our borders, it has every reason to wish for the same on the China-Bhutan border. Good neighbourly relations between Bhutan and China are in India’s interest just as good relations between India and China is in Bhutan’s. Unfortunately, recent Chinese actions appear to reflect a competitive frame within which it looks at its relations with countries in the subcontinent. Just as it has tried to sow discord among Asean members through intimidation and blandishments, it is seeking to do the same in our neighbourhood. Both Bhutan and India understand this strategy very well even if some others in our region do not. Indian diplomacy needs to engage more intensively with all our neighbouring countries not only to expose Chinese strategy and risks for countries of the region, but also to expand our relationship with them much beyond current levels. This is irrespective of how the Doklam impasse eventually gets resolved.”
Finally, a column penned by a former Indian military General on the website of News 18, a prominent news broadcaster in India opined that any resolution to this standoff could be reached through diplomatic or military means alone, and not via the media. “It is important for leaders to understand this competition and handle it with a sense of long term strategy. There is no great strategic advantage to China in building a dirt road, or a strategic disadvantage to India in Dokalam, which should bring the two countries to the brink of a conflict. TRPs should not influence policy and blind us to geostrategic realities. Otherwise we will rush into a situation which will leave both countries red-faced. It is time to rely on the advice of experts in handling such situations. And frankly there are only two such expert groups – military officers and the diplomats. With no malice to the others, they just do not have the experience or the historical knowledge to deal with such crises. The central skill of the officer corps is, as Harold Lasswell put it, “the management of violence.” While winning wars is the most desirable outcome, one key function of the military is also to deter war. Diplomats are accomplished in the art of international relations and negotiations, and they do this best in an atmosphere which is not clouded by rhetoric. We hope both these groups are playing out their role.”
Change in Political Landscape in Bihar
In late August, Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, chose to withdraw his political party’s support from the three-member coalition that had been ruling the state for the last two years, and instead ally with the BJP. Mr. Kumar’s stunning decision resulted in an overnight shift in Bihar’s political landscape, and a number of political commentators weighed in on the ramifications of his decision on state and national politics.
An editorial in the Hindu explained that rather than be perceived as disloyal to the previous coalition government, Mr. Kumar should be viewed as a political opportunist. “While Mr. Prasad’s was a blatant politics of revelry, there was something calculated, almost repressed, with Mr. Kumar. He seemed obsessed with power, narcissistic about his image, paranoid about survival. It is almost as if every move of his was tactical, even fighting corruption. Apart from Narendra Modi, one cannot think of anyone more preoccupied with power and retaining power. He wanted to be a national leader, but Mr. Prasad was more effective as a vote-catcher. There was a sense of being second, even secondary, to Mr. Kumar’s career in front of the likes of Mr. Prasad and Mr. Modi. They were more colourful personalities. His dreams of governance were no match for Mr. Modi’s. His popularity lagged behind Mr. Prasad’s. Psychologically all this must have rankled. In fact his curriculum vitae shows that this opportunistic politician was a master at playing the shifting sounds of politics. Mr. Prasad got it wrong when he complained that Mr. Kumar has slapped the nation. Rather than being “anti-national”, he was loyal to himself and that seems the ultimate patriotism of electoral politics today.”
The Indian Express focused its attention (and criticism) on the remaining members of the coalition (and now members of opposition), which Mr. Kumar’s party withdrew from. “There is an irony in trying to interpret Nitish’s break with Lalu as some kind of watershed moment in Indian politics. Does it represent the death of secularism? Does it represent the death of regional parties? But the blunt truth is that this moment is not a watershed, but merely a reminder of the eternal realities of Indian democracy: Indian democracy is politics all the way down… The fact that Indian democracy has been politics all the way down has been its strength: It has made for unlikely coalitions, prevented polarisation. But now with a new ideological force like the BJP so dominant, politics as usual will not suffice. The Opposition’s main failing has been that even in defeat it has refused to change. From Congress to Lalu, all opposition parties exude a sense of political unreality: Not a single leader is changed in defeat, no new ideological narrative, no organisational energy, no symbolic imagination. Like any politician, Nitish can be forgiven for thinking there is no future hanging out with this lot. He has been saying this quite clearly to the Congress. But the larger message for national politics is the opposition to the BJP cannot be built with the rotten materials of the old order.”
Live Mint adopted a more macro view to its approach, stating that the national political landscape in India was being re-written in light of developments in Bihar. “To say this abrupt reversal of circumstances was stunning is an understatement. It is much more. The ramifications of this development are likely to go far beyond Bihar; it is catalysing the rewriting of national politics in an unprecedented manner. For one, Kumar’s flip-flop has only reinforced BJP’s credentials as the new pole of Indian politics. With its audacious win in the 16th general election, the BJP had signalled this makeover was in the offing. The unexpectedly rapid implosion of a demoralised Congress thereafter ensured that the BJP very quickly extended its electoral footprint across the country by winning a string of assembly elections. Missing in the crown were Bihar and Delhi—in both of which the BJP suffered humiliating defeats. Now only Delhi survives, akin to the mythical Gaul village immortalised in Asterix comics which defied Roman dominance; given its own internal dynamics it is to be seen how long the Aam Aadmi Party keeps out the saffron wave.”
Nawaz Sharif Removed as Prime Minister of Pakistan
The Supreme Court of Pakistan, in a unanimous verdict, disqualified Nawaz Sharif from the office of Prime Minister of Pakistan, in light of revelations in the Panama Papers about disproportionate overseas assets owned by Mr. Sharif and his family. While a number of Pakistani publications have interpreted this decision as a victory against corruption, the press reaction in India to these developments was more circumspect.
The Hindu argued that Mr. Sharif’s removal signalled greater political instability, in Pakistan. “Over the last four years Pakistan has had a spell of relative economic stability, an easing of the electricity crisis and a drop in terror attacks. But now that Mr. Sharif is gone, it is not clear how the military will deal with any resultant political instability or executive frailty. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has quickly named Shahbaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister’s brother and the Chief Minister of Punjab, as his successor to ensure a smooth transition as well as to stop its rivals from gaining from a prolonged crisis. But the younger Sharif, who had a run-in with the military last year, has big shoes to fill at a challenging time. With Pakistan going to the polls next year and the opposition, mainly Mr. Khan’s PTI which is in effect the king’s party, trying to turn corruption into a galvanising electoral issue, Shahbaz Sharif will take charge while the country is virtually in campaign mode. All this is happening at a time when Pakistan is coming under increased pressure from the United States to act against militants, and while border tensions with India and Afghanistan continue to remain high. Even with his brother’s backroom support, Shahbaz Sharif will have his plate full.”
The Indian Express echoed a similar sentiment, arguing that “although the more popular narrative in the country at the moment is that a new map is being drawn to eliminate corruption, it is questionable if the process would not be selective. In any case, the national accountability ordinance excludes the judiciary and military from this process. Not that it is easy to absolve Sharif from his sin of amassing unaccounted-for wealth. However, his departure is likely to be a great setback in terms of even marginal chances of peace and stability in the South Asian region. There is very little likelihood of an interim government being in full control of foreign policy or taking any peace initiative vis-à-vis its neighbours or certain other critical powers like the US. While many believe that Sharif put his eggs in the wrong basket by hoping that China would protect him since he made great achievement in pushing for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the fact is that Sharif was immaterial to developments vis-à-vis Beijing. Pakistan is now back to its traditional policy framework. The only question that remains is when will a next government get elected and if Imran Khan gets a chance to be in office.”
Finally, a column in Live Mint also took a negative view on the developments in Pakistan, explaining that “in Pakistan’s 70 years of existence, not one prime minister has served a full five-year term. They’ve been fired by governor-generals and army chiefs and judges. So it was always fruitless, I expect, to hope that Nawaz Sharif, elected with a massive mandate in 2013, would become the first. And so it has proved: Sharif was “disqualified” — in fact, dismissed — by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Friday. The last elected prime minister before Sharif, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was also dismissed by the Supreme Court, in 2012. The headlines will tell you that Sharif was forced out amid accusations of corruption — and that’s true, as far as it goes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go very far. In fact, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Sharif was dismissed because, as with the others, a secretive military “establishment” decided to fire him. That’s bad news for Pakistan; again, a democratic mandate appears to have been shown to be of no account when compared to the wishes of the army. Nor is it good news for Pakistan’s neighbours — or the West… When Sharif was elected, you could hope that, under him, Pakistan would grow closer to India and the west, crack down on terrorism, and reform its economy. You can no longer expect any of that. Instead, it’s far more likely Pakistan will turn to China to help shore up its patronage-based economy… No, Nawaz Sharif is no saint. But his departure is very bad news for anyone who had bet on a brighter future for Pakistan.”
©2017 Greater Pacific Capital