A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked up a political storm by asserting that the no intruder had stepped inside Indian territory in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley nor was control of any Indian post taken by an outsider, the Congress party, on Saturday, posed 10 questions to the Centre on the ongoing standoff between India and China.
Insisting that the PM’s statement contradicts the earlier statements made by the Chief of Army Staff, the Union defence and foreign ministers, Chidambaram wondered that if Modi’s contention, made as part of his concluding remarks at Friday’s all party meeting, reflects the correct position and if no Chinese troops had crossed the LAC in the Galwan Valley then “what was the face off on May 5 and 6”.
“What was the issue on which local Indian commanders were talking to their Chinese counterparts? What was the subject matter of the negotiations between the Corps Commanders of the two countries,” Chidambaram questioned. He added, “if no Chinese troops were inside Indian territory, where did the clashes take place on June 15-16; where were 20 Indian soldiers killed and 85 injured?”
The former Union home minister said that following the Prime Minister’s statement, China has blamed India for the clashes that resulted in the brutal killing of 20 Indian army personnel by their Chinese counterparts. Chidambaram indicated that Modi’s statement had “allowed China to re-assert its claim to the entire Galwan Valley”, and wondered “what is the (Indian) government’s answer to this claim?”
The Congress party and its top leadership has, for over a month, been regularly posing questions to the Modi government on the heightened conflict between India and China in the Galwan Valley ever since movement of Chinese troops began along the LAC in Ladakh. Congress sources say the party believes that Modi has made a “historical blunder by unilaterally ceding India’s territorial, military and diplomatic space to China” with his statement at the all party meet.
Modi’s statement also allows the Congress to shed its reticence on taking an aggressive stand against the BJP’s handling of the conflict with China considering that the neighbour had humiliated India during the 1962 war when the Grand Old Party ruled the country with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as the Prime Minister. Nehru’s supposed naiveté vis-à-vis the designs of the Chinese establishment on Indian territory which ultimately led to India’s embarrassment in the 1962 war have routinely been cited by the BJP as a blunder of the Congress party that undermined India’s position globally against its powerful neighbor. The Congress believes that Modi’s controversial statement finally allows the Grand Old Party a viable retort to the BJP’s criticism – that despite obvious handicaps of a newly independent country that was still struggling on various economic and social fronts, Nehru did not shy away from the war against an obviously more powerful China and, that within five years, under Indira Gandhi’s premiership, India decisively defeated the Chinese forces in the 1967 war which eventually led to Sikkim’s annexation to India in 1975.
However, the Congress remains cautious of how it plans to attack the Modi government on the territorial and military conflict, given the BJP’s ability to fan sentiments in time of such crises as was evident last year following the Balakot air strikes. A section of the party’s leadership believes that the current standoff between India and China has, so far, “given the BJP no ground to claim victory as opposed to the situation that followed what had happened in Balakot”.
A senior Congress leader tells Outlook, “unlike Balakot which happened just before the Lok Sabha polls and was milked for electoral gains by the BJP which claimed it had taught Pakistan a lesson, the Galwan Valley crisis has a completely different matrix.” The leader said, “First, the enemy here isn’t Pakistan or the Muslims but China. Second, it is now common knowledge that the Chinese entered our territory and brutally killed 20 of our army personnel while we haven’t been able to show what damage we succeeded in inflicting on the neighbour. Third, by saying that there was no intrusion or that our forces carried weapons but did not use them when they were under attack, the Centre has humiliated our martyrs and Armed Forces.”
It is, thus, not surprising that Chidambaram hinted that the controversy stoked by Modi may evolve into a political slugfest during the assembly polls due in Bihar later this year. The Congress expects that the BJP will try to build a jingoistic campaign in Bihar, especially since the Army personnel martyred in the Galwan Valley belonged to the Bihar regiment – a point Modi has unambiguously raised ever since the clashes.
The Centre, on its part, has for now termed the controversy over Modi’s statement as “unnecessary”. In a detailed statement issued by the government soon after Chidambaram’s presser, the government sought to claim that Modi’s “observations that there was no Chinese presence on our side of the LAC pertained to the situation as a consequence of the bravery of our armed forces.” It is, however, unlikely that the clarification would put an end to the political war of words between the BJP and the Congress any time soon.