Public history and India



 An examination of ‘public history’ in India – or rather, public history and India – has taken on a special urgency in recent years, not least because the Republic of India is in the middle of an unprecedented crisis of the relationship between the state, the public and the citizen. In this situation, it has become necessary to scrutinize not only Indian publics and their histories, but also the public’s uses of history, and the problems and possibilities of writing history for the public. At the core of the crisis is a breakdown of the alliance between liberalism and history without which the democratic nation-state becomes ethnocratic and, in some contexts, fascist. This breakdown has become inescapable in India, where a rampant and frequently violent majoritarianism – unchecked by the state, and increasingly inseparable from the state – has been feeding off, and feeding, narratives of bridges to Lanka, the pre-Mughal origins of the Taj Mahal, and alternative outcomes of the Battle of Haldighati. The problem cannot be pinned on any particular government; it is woven into the fabric of a public that has, by and large, fetishized sovereignty without liberalism since the inception of the Indian nation.

History, in this situation, is both the disease and the remedy, because the weakness of liberal institutions and principles of governance in India is compounded by readily identifiable political and discursive fallacies, such as allegation of ‘pseudo-secularism’ and the discourse of ‘Muslim appeasement.’ These fallacies are undergirded by a narrative of indigenes and invaders, tyrants and victims, that is not only reactionary in the context of a multi-ethnic society, but that has not been challenged consistently by liberal nationalists. In the late nineteenth century, for instance, the Congress Moderates and their Extremist challengers generally agreed that Aurangzeb was the devil. They differed mainly in what they wished to emphasize: whereas one historically-minded group dwelled on the diabolical, the other preferred to divert attention to the available angels (Akbar, Dara Shukoh, even benign Europeans).

In subsequent decades, when the Extremist/Moderate divide had become obsolete, two broad factions continued to mark nationalist politics, both overflowing the conventional boundary between the ‘secular’ and the ‘communal.’ One group saw the public project of the nation-state as historical revenge, the other emphasized the reconciliation of old enmities in a newly shared citizenship. They did not, however, disagree fundamentally about the content of the past, or about a dichotomy of options in the present between vengeance and forgetting. Since history tends to work against forgetting, it is not surprising that a nation founded on a history of conflict with a resident enemy has become more focused on vengeance, and more overtly majoritarian, as it has become more democratic. Also, since the illiberal state has typically functioned as the gatekeeper to public forums such as museums, archaeological sites, the cinema, and above all the school, the liberal historian – where she has existed – has had a limited and fiercely contested access to the public, especially that part of the public that has constituted itself as the ‘majority.’

What is public history, and can it mean the same thing in all contexts? Acknowledging that the concept of public history is notoriously hard to define, Robert Weible nevertheless suggested that it involves an attempt by scholars to bridge the gaps between academic and popular uses of historical discourse. He gave as his example the engagement of historians in the provision of texts that might accompany monuments and exhibits, those being sites where the public performs its public function. Such a conceptualization may be appropriate in the democratic states of the West, where even in the midst of intense disagreement about what history should inform public policy, there is a consensus of sorts about what history is, about what ‘the public’ is, about the public’s investment in history, and about the public’s claim upon the state, i.e., about the connections between public and policy. It is not adequate in the case of India, where no such consensus is apparent. R.K. Laxman and Arvind Kejriwal notwithstanding, the Indian ‘common man’ is a fragmented and contentious animal, and one cannot take for granted a notion of citizenship that is anchored either in popular sovereignty or in liberalism, which have become politically opposed to each other in India. Here, multiple publics – sometimes including the same people – vie to establish not only the content of history, but the contours and significance of history as a discipline with a privileged place in the nation-state. Academic history in India is only precariously located in the public. Its narratives are challenged constantly and effectively by those who claim the prestige of history as a discipline but are uninterested in its methods and unaware of its content, and it has no ready response to the argument that disciplinary prestige can have no assurance of authority in a democracy. ‘Sentiments’ can be as important as history in determining policy.

Under the circumstances, the ‘public history’ of the historical space that now includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh must be structured broadly and pursue multiple projects simultaneously. The structure should accommodate three main objectives: studying the formation of particular publics, studying public experiences, and writing for the public in a society at war with itself. These should be intertwined goals, but they can nevertheless be discrete enough to guide historians as they set out to define what they are trying to do.

We might begin with histories of becoming a public, or the processes and debates through which ‘people’ become a ‘public.’ These must contend with the layered nature of assertions of public identity in India since the early nineteenth century. Not only have specific politically mobilized identities (structured as ethnicity, nationality, class, caste, etc.) produced a multiplicity of publics, a new general identity (that of being a member of ‘the public’ as a concept equipped with entitlements and even obligations) has functioned as the glue holding these compartments together. The latter, however, is not universal, because while it is constructed with reference to global notions of being a public, it is also, invariably, limited by national citizenship. Exploring the tensions and resolutions between the particularity, generality, and universality of public-formation is critical to understanding the contextual and essentially federal practice of Indian nationhoods, in which there is a constant awareness of outsiders who are also insiders, and one learns to function in overlapping and not easily reconciled modes. These modes include the regional and the transregional, the Bengali and the Indian, the Baidya and the bhadra, the Indian and the modern. Each has its particular relationship to what can be either one state, carefully differentiated layers and segments of the state, or institutions below (or alongside) the state. In any case, the analysis must spotlight the development of a relationship with instituted authority. Without the relationship, which can be proprietorial or oppositional, there can be no public to speak of.

Such histories of becoming are also, necessarily, projects of distinguishing between private and public worlds, a task that includes the construction of the ‘private’ as an appropriate subject for public debate. Here, Partha Chatterjee indicated in The Nation and its Fragments and Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provincializing Europe, colonialism generated private and semi-private national domains that were fraught but also reassuringly conservative. It generated, in conjunction, a ferociously contested domain of public experiences, in which ‘private’ subjects locked out of the chambers of policy-making could not only articulate a public-hood grounded in the shared experience of powerlessness, but experience alternative modalities of power grounded in resistance or (more typically) indifference to formal authority, coupled with an intensely creative willingness to identify and defend alternative theaters of agency. These experiences are, indeed, key to our understanding of the public in a society that has, as often as not, bypassed civil society on the way to modernity, and in which civil society – where it exists –remains deeply ambivalent about liberalism. In other words, close examination of ‘being (in) public’ as a set of experiences and projects of self-making is essential to the study of not only nationalism without a nation-state, but also the post-1947 South Asian predicament of illiberal democracy.

That predicament is precisely what creates, for the ‘public historian,’ a space and a responsibility to speak across publics, as it were. It is not enough to dissect the public, although that task remains essential. It is important, also, to acknowledge that what is being dissected is not dead, is unlikely to be killed by academic historians, and is something of a killer in its own right. Academic historians must speak to it, about it, and (at least strategically) from within it: recovering from the past the alternatives to a public project of existential revenge and placing them within the lived realities of the present. It is, therefore, essential to address what the public itself considers important to public life: institutions and experiences like working, dining, sport, school, the cinema, the shop, the street, and the war zone. If the everyday world of the public citizen – the experiences that generate difference from some and commonality with some others – can be unpacked and explained in terms that are comprehensible to those who are arguably modern but not liberal, we may be able to recover, from the mob, a critical mass of citizens who recognize that lynching is a specific, and inferior, form of public action.

August 22, 2017

The Non-War in Bhutan



The quiet drama that has been unfolding in Bhutan over the past several weeks – with Indian and Chinese troops facing off yet again over a disputed and uncertainly demarcated border – has now reached a point where it can become both a minor tragedy and a farce. A ‘war’ between India and China is now more likely than not. While a conflict between two enormous and nuclear-armed adversaries can be expected to be momentous and transformative in its political and strategic consequences, not to mention highly lethal, the reality is that the clash, if it comes, will be none of those things. It will change very little, not least because it will not be much of a war.

‘War’ implies a certain scale of hostilities. In the Doklam sector, where the current face-off is taking place, a very small number of Indian troops (the numbers range from a high of 270 to a low of 40) are holding the line, so to speak, against roughly comparable numbers of Chinese. Both sides are armed with light personal firearms, pointed carefully at the ground. American police departments are more heavily armed. The Indian soldiers have formed human chains by holding hands; the Chinese have politely refrained from breaking the chain. But the parity of weakness is deceptive, because behind the Chinese border guards stand the actual body of the People’s Liberation Army and its air force, deployed across the Tibetan plateau, whereas behind the Indians there is nothing except some very high mountains. The geography of the region has not changed since the 1962 border conflict. If (or rather, when) the Chinese decide to expel the 270 (or 40) Indians from ‘their’ territory, they can do so in a matter of hours, using a relatively low level of force: a few hundred lightly armed troops, backed by gas, helicopters and armored personnel carriers, can effectively ‘arrest’ and ‘expel’ the ‘intruders.’ A few men will probably die, but it will be more in the nature of crowd control than war. Indeed, it will probably be less of a war than 1962, which came with a real sense of national emergency, a real – if badly mismanaged – attempt to fight back with available military and diplomatic resources, and real embarrassment (indeed, lasting shame) for the Indian government and national public.

This time, it is unlikely that there will be any Indian attempt to escalate or fight back. Air power will not be deployed, nor the navy used in any capacity. In the fairly long time that has passed since this confrontation began, there have been no major Indian troop movements, no new deployments, no theater-specific training exercises, no flurry of consultations between the government and the military, no lining up of allies, no rush to stockpile ammunition and spare parts, no hurry to build defensive fortifications. Militarily, it is as if nothing has happened or will happen. There has been more talk of deploying a tank on the JNU campus than of deploying tanks in Bhutan, Ladakh or Arunachal. (Even the Indian media, forever ready to beat the war drum when it comes to Pakistan, has been circumspect as a mouse.) When the Chinese make their move, the Indian government and political parties will huff and puff with outrage, then subside into a wounded sulk of medium duration. There may be some noises on the diplomatic front, but these are unlikely to be especially significant: even a radical shift in the Indian position on Chinese sovereignty in Tibet will do little to affect the status quo in Tibet, and no country in the world – probably not even India – will move to isolate an economy as valuable as the Chinese. Not surprisingly, the Indian government, the media and other institutions of Indian nationalism have adopted a position that can be described only as fatalistic.

There is a ‘why’ and a ‘so what’ to be addressed here, and both are large, complex questions with layered answers. The most straightforward answer to the question why the Indian response has been fatalistic is that even after the 1962 debacle, the Indian defense establishment did not prepare consistently for a conflict with China. The matter of consistence is important, because there have been periods of adequate preparation. In 1967, for instance, improvements in military capability ensured that Indian forces won the localized clashes that broke out at Nathu La and Cho La in the Sikkim sector. Through the 1970s, the combination of Sino-Soviet hostility and the Indo-Soviet quasi-alliance provided almost ironclad defense, and well into the 1980s, more or less reasonable decisions on the import of weaponry from the USSR, France and Britain meant that Indian military equipment had a qualitative edge that compensated partially for Chinese quantitative superiority. In this period, the Indian military also trained proactively to fight in the north, something it had hardly done at all before 1962.

The inconsistency lay in the total failure to build up a defensive infrastructure along the border. While China laid thousands of miles of roads and rail tracks in Tibet and built a network of forward air fields, hardly anything was done on the Indian side of the zone of contention, partly out of a reluctance to provoke China, partly out of a sense that the existing security arrangement was adequate, and partly out of certain deficiencies in the nature of the Indian state. It was not foreseen that the Soviet partnership would not only fall apart, but partially reverse itself, with Russia providing the Chinese military with a new generation of sophisticated weaponry. Even when the transformation of China into a major economic, industrial and scientific power courted by both sides of the erstwhile Cold War (which is the real hallmark of the obsolescence of Non-Alignment) became apparent, new roads and airfields in the Indian far north appeared only in fits and starts, in a series of always-delayed half-measures, interrupted by changes in government, obstructed by the bureaucracy, seeping through the cracks of an overwhelming lethargy of the state. The army’s ambitious plan for a Mountain Strike Corps, or a major formation specialized for offensive operations across the Himalayas, has been scaled back and is behind schedule. Indian military acquisitions in this post-Cold-War period actually became slower and harder to rationalize, even as they became wildly expensive and beset by corruption. Every plan for the enhancement of war-fighting capabilities has proceeded so slowly that it is obsolete before it is complete.

What had existed between India and China between 1962 and 1989 was not actual military parity; China was always the bigger power. There existed, rather, an effective arrangement, diplomatic and military, for offsetting the imbalance. The core of any such arrangement lies in recognizing that in a war of even a limited scale, the enemy will win. That trick, however, is to make that victory sufficiently expensive that it is not worth ‘purchasing.’ Even a relatively weak power can, for instance, seize and hold a piece of enemy territory long enough to force a ‘victor’ to either negotiate or prolong the war, or destroy a few, specific, high-value targets that the enemy is loath to lose. The capability must be well known, for its primary purpose is deterrence. This is a trick that Pakistan has learned and deployed quite effectively in its relations with India since 1971. Before 1971, the Pakistani military entertained delusions of winning a war against India, which proved counterproductive. But in the 1980s, Pakistan could deter an Indian attack on Kahuta by making it clear that it could, and would, strike Indian nuclear installations in return. Later, when India dealt with the shortcomings exposed by Operation Parakram by formulating the ‘Cold Start’ plan of rapid invasion, Pakistan was able to counter effectively with a comprehensive, if suicidal, doctrine of tactical nuclear war, limiting India to nothing beyond semi-fantastic ‘surgical strikes.’

When it comes to China, India has done none of these things. There is no known plan, posture or doctrine, conventional or nuclear, that promise to exact a price for ‘victory’: nothing that the army, air force and navy have equipped, trained and deployed for. The occasional exercises and public hugs with the US and Japan are entirely inadequate and unserious; they have produced nothing in way of a trigger or a mechanism of deployment – structural and diplomatic – that would ensure that if the Chinese attack forty or two hundred Indian soldiers in Bhutan, they will be purchasing a wider war. They amount to little more than public relations exercises. The Indian government is perfectly aware of these dynamics; hence the fatalistic waiting for the Chinese to deliver a limited blow in a limited place, get it over with, and carry on with business as usual.

Now, to the so-what. The Indian refusal (for it is not inability alone) to respond to an explicit threat from China shows, firstly, that India at the present time is not a nation-state in the standard modern sense of a sovereign entity wary of its neighboring states. It is obsessed with Pakistan, not so much as a fully separate entity as with an internal component of Indian nationhood: an Indian itch that must be scratched constantly.  Indian nationalism today is subalternized, more concerned with cow-protection than with doctrines and strategy, less invested in correcting what went wrong in NEFA in 1962 than in refighting the Battle of Haldighati. It would concede, albeit regretfully, strategic territory to China if that means getting back to the real business of cow-protection and love-jihad, i.e., to confronting Muslims and liberals. It may be pointless for the Chinese to keep warning India about an impending humiliation, because unlike the India of 1962 (by which I mean a tiny sliver of the population), the India of 2017 is shameless, unconcerned with the terms of shame and self-respect by which nation-states operate. It likes tanks and missiles, but mainly as decorations and badges in a posture of prestige, much as a newly moneyed member of the elite might display his toys (carefully wrapped in plastic) without being overly concerned about their ‘proper’ use.

The Beijing regime recently complained that India is using the Doklam stand-off to divert attention from its ‘real problems,’ i.e., from domestic politics. The analysis is quite incorrect. What India is doing (and not doing) relative to China is not a distraction from internal politics, but a reflection of the kind of state that incubates those politics. This India does not care about China one way or another, either as a good neighbor or as an expansionist bully. The pejorative connotations of shamelessness are not readily applicable to this apparent indifference to threats and defeat. After all, the nationalism of competing states is hardly a benign dynamic in the history of the modern world. But the Indian indifference is not a rejection of violent national competition. It is, rather, an unprecedented form of nationalism and democracy, in which the (Hindu) nation’s capture of the sovereign (Indian) state has not completed the quest for sovereignty, which has now become entangled with an unending search for dominance and revenge within the state and a collapsed neighborhood.

As a policy-making institution, this insular nation (that, unlike Britain, does not see itself as an island in a wider world, but mistakes the island for the world) is clearly a historical development rather than a ‘cultural’ phenomenon. Its emergence coincided precisely with two related phenomena: the emergence of the Sangh Parivar as the dominant political force in the country, and the fragmentation of the Congress. It is not enough to point the finger at the Sangh Parivar, because the two terms of the Congress-led UPA government saw little in the way of course-correction. Indeed, A.K. Anthony’s long stint as Defense Minister saw the worst neglect of defense priorities since 1962. Broken beyond repair, the Congress – the party that once exemplified dynamism in foreign policy – no longer has a foreign policy at all, and has not had one for decades.

The Indian state that was born in 1947 could function as a ‘normal’ state in the world because its running was in the hands of a small elite that saw the world as a geopolitical globe of states, with boundaries and interests in the present time. In 1962, 1965, 1971 and even the 1980s, Indian governments were able to work with a rational, modern sense of foreign threats and partners; it is not surprising that in that period, the Chinese threat (which is not a fiction) was managed more or less rationally. It is precisely when obsession with the ‘anti-national Muslim’ became a ‘foreign policy’ that India’s China policy became insubstantial and unmoored from reality. (The contrast between the strategic comprehension of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Sam Manekshaw on the one hand, and of Narendra Modi and Bipin Rawat on the other, is so stark as to be almost comical.) The globe had been taken over by the denizens of a flat earth, who found the tools and icons of modernity not only useful but irresistible even as they shifted the agenda of governance, nationhood and the state. Thus, the debatable shamelessness of failing to respond to a foreign threat is connected with the indisputable shamelessness of lynching, pogroms and punishing those who failed to stand for the national anthem: when a democracy functions in the latter mode, it has already normalized the former.

There are occasions in history when even a shameless regime can be shamed out of existence by military defeat. Some who are dismayed by the fascistic inclinations of the current disposition in India may have hopes that losing a war to China will weaken the BJP at home. That expectation is almost certainly misplaced. There will probably be no major war, and therefore no major embarrassment for the government and no electoral setback in 2019. There will only be a small slap in the mountains, and the sting will fade quickly. The government can even take credit for not backing down until the slap came. (Indeed, this is precisely the ‘face-saving formula’ that the government seems to have chosen.) Other states will notice, and Indian credibility in the world will take a beating, but in the neighborhood that matters in domestic politics – the neighborhood of the flat earth – what happens in that world is unreal and irrelevant.

The quiet drama that has been unfolding in Bhutan over the past several weeks – with Indian and Chinese troops facing off yet again over a disputed and uncertainly demarcated border – has now reached a point where it can become both a minor tragedy and a farce. A ‘war’ between India and China is now more likely than not. While a conflict between two enormous and nuclear-armed adversaries can be expected to be momentous and transformative in its political and strategic consequences, not to mention highly lethal, the reality is that the clash, if it comes, will be none of those things. It will change very little, not least because it will not be much of a war.

‘War’ implies a certain scale of hostilities. In the Doklam sector, where the current face-off is taking place, a very small number of Indian troops (the numbers range from a high of 270 to a low of 40) are holding the line, so to speak, against roughly comparable numbers of Chinese. Both sides are armed with light personal firearms, pointed carefully at the ground. American police departments are more heavily armed. The Indian soldiers have formed human chains by holding hands; the Chinese have politely refrained from breaking the chain. But the parity of weakness is deceptive, because behind the Chinese border guards stand the actual body of the People’s Liberation Army and its air force, deployed across the Tibetan plateau, whereas behind the Indians there is nothing except some very high mountains. The geography of the region has not changed since the 1962 border conflict. If (or rather, when) the Chinese decide to expel the 270 (or 40) Indians from ‘their’ territory, they can do so in a matter of hours, using a relatively low level of force: a few hundred lightly armed troops, backed by gas, helicopters and armored personnel carriers, can effectively ‘arrest’ and ‘expel’ the ‘intruders.’ A few men will probably die, but it will be more in the nature of crowd control than war. Indeed, it will be probably less of a war than 1962, which came with a real sense of national emergency, and a real – if badly mismanaged – attempt to fight back with available military and diplomatic resources.

This time, it is unlikely that there will be any Indian attempt to escalate or fight back. Air power will not be deployed, nor the navy used in any capacity. In the fairly long time that has passed since this confrontation began, there have been no major Indian troop movements, no new deployments, no theater-specific training exercises, no flurry of consultations between the government and the military, no lining up of allies, no rush to stockpile ammunition and spare parts, no hurry to build defensive fortifications. Militarily, it is as if nothing has happened or will happen. There has been more talk of deploying a tank on the JNU campus than of deploying tanks in Bhutan, Ladakh or Arunachal. (Even the Indian media, forever ready to beat the war drum when it comes to Pakistan, has been circumspect as a mouse.) When the Chinese make their move, the Indian government and political parties will huff and puff with outrage, then subside into a wounded sulk of medium duration. There may be some noises on the diplomatic front, but these are unlikely to be especially significant: even a radical shift in the Indian position on Chinese sovereignty in Tibet will do little to affect the status quo in Tibet, and no country in the world – probably not even India – will move to isolate an economy as valuable as the Chinese. Not surprisingly, the Indian government, the media and other institutions of Indian nationalism have adopted a position that can be described only as fatalistic.

There is a ‘why’ and a ‘so what’ to be addressed here, and both are large, complex questions with layered answers. The most straightforward answer to the question why the Indian response has been fatalistic is that even after the 1962 debacle, the Indian defense establishment did not prepare consistently for a conflict with China. The matter of consistence is important, because there have been periods of adequate preparation. In 1967, for instance, improvements in military capability ensured that Indian forces won the localized clashes that broke out at Nathu La and Cho La in the Sikkim sector. Through the 1970s, the combination of Sino-Soviet hostility and the Indo-Soviet quasi-alliance provided almost ironclad defense, and well into the 1980s, more or less reasonable decisions on the import of weaponry from the USSR, France and Britain meant that Indian military equipment had a qualitative edge that compensated partially for Chinese quantitative superiority. In this period, the Indian military also trained proactively to fight in the north, something it had hardly done at all before 1962.

The inconsistency lay in the total failure to build up a defensive infrastructure along the border. While China laid thousands of miles of roads and rail tracks in Tibet and built a network of forward air fields, hardly anything was done on the Indian side of the zone of contention, partly out of a reluctance to provoke China, partly out of a sense that the existing security arrangement was adequate, and partly out of certain deficiencies in the nature of the Indian state. It was not foreseen that the Soviet partnership would not only fall apart, but partially reverse itself, with Russia providing the Chinese military with a new generation of sophisticated weaponry. Even when the transformation of China into a major economic, industrial and scientific power courted by both sides of the erstwhile Cold War (which is the real hallmark of the obsolescence of Non-Alignment) became apparent, new roads and airfields in the Indian far north appeared only in fits and starts, in a series of always-delayed half-measures, interrupted by changes in government, obstructed by the bureaucracy, seeping through the cracks of an overwhelming lethargy of the state. The army’s ambitious plan for a Mountain Strike Corps, or a major formation specialized for offensive operations across the Himalayas, has been scaled back and is behind schedule. Indian military acquisitions in this post-Cold-War period actually became slower and harder to rationalize, even as they became wildly expensive and beset by corruption. Every plan for the enhancement of war-fighting capabilities has proceeded so slowly that it is obsolete before it is complete.

What had existed between India and China between 1962 and 1989 was not actual military parity; China was always the bigger power. There existed, rather, an effective arrangement, diplomatic and military, for offsetting the imbalance. The core of any such arrangement lies in recognizing that in a war of even a limited scale, the enemy will win. That trick, however, is to make that victory sufficiently expensive that it is not worth ‘purchasing.’ Even a relatively weak power can, for instance, seize and hold a piece of enemy territory long enough to force a ‘victor’ to either negotiate or prolong the war, or destroy a few, specific, high-value targets that the enemy is loath to lose. The capability must be well known, for its primary purpose is deterrence. This is a trick that Pakistan has learned and deployed quite effectively in its relations with India since 1971. Before 1971, the Pakistani military entertained delusions of winning a war against India, which proved counterproductive. But in the 1980s, Pakistan could deter an Indian attack on Kahuta by making it clear that it could, and would, strike Indian nuclear installations in return. Later, when India dealt with the shortcomings exposed by Operation Parakram by formulating the ‘Cold Start’ plan of rapid invasion, Pakistan was able to counter effectively with a comprehensive, if suicidal, doctrine of tactical nuclear war, limiting India to nothing beyond semi-fantastic ‘surgical strikes.’

When it comes to China, India has done none of these things. There is no known plan, posture or doctrine, conventional or nuclear, that promise to exact a price for ‘victory’: nothing that the army, air force and navy have equipped, trained and deployed for. The occasional exercises and public hugs with the US and Japan are entirely inadequate and unserious; they have produced nothing in way of a trigger or a mechanism of deployment – structural and diplomatic – that would ensure that if the Chinese attack forty or two hundred Indian soldiers in Bhutan, they will be purchasing a wider war. They amount to little more than public relations exercises. The Indian government is perfectly aware of these dynamics; hence the fatalistic waiting for the Chinese to deliver a limited blow in a limited place, get it over with, and carry on with business as usual.

Now, to the so-what. The Indian refusal (for it is not inability alone) to respond to an explicit threat from China shows, firstly, that India at the present time is not a nation-state in the standard modern sense of a sovereign entity wary of its neighboring states. It is obsessed with Pakistan, not so much as a fully separate entity as with an internal component of Indian nationhood: an Indian itch that must be scratched constantly.  Indian nationalism today is subalternized, more concerned with cow-protection than with doctrines and strategy, less invested in correcting what went wrong in NEFA in 1962 than in refighting the Battle of Haldighati. It would concede, albeit regretfully, strategic territory to China if that means getting back to the real business of cow-protection and love-jihad, i.e., to confronting Muslims and liberals. It may be pointless for the Chinese to keep warning India about an impending humiliation, because unlike the India of 1962 (by which I mean a tiny sliver of the population), the India of 2017 is shameless, unconcerned with the terms of shame and self-respect by which nation-states operate. It likes tanks and missiles, but mainly as decorations and badges in a posture of prestige, much as a newly moneyed member of the elite might display his toys (carefully wrapped in plastic) without being overly concerned about their ‘proper’ use.

The Beijing regime recently complained that India is using the Doklam stand-off to divert attention from its ‘real problems,’ i.e., from domestic politics. The analysis is quite incorrect. What India is doing (and not doing) relative to China is not a distraction from internal politics, but a reflection of the kind of state that incubates those politics. This India does not care about China one way or another, either as a good neighbor or as an expansionist bully. The pejorative connotations of shamelessness are not readily applicable to this apparent indifference to threats and defeat. After all, the nationalism of competing states is hardly a benign dynamic in the history of the modern world. But the Indian indifference is not a rejection of violent national competition. It is, rather, an unprecedented form of nationalism and democracy, in which the (Hindu) nation’s capture of the sovereign (Indian) state has not completed the quest for sovereignty, which has now become entangled with an unending search for dominance and revenge within the state and a collapsed neighborhood.

As a policy-making institution, this insular nation (that, unlike Britain, does not see itself as an island in a wider world, but mistakes the island for the world) is clearly a historical development rather than a ‘cultural’ phenomenon. Its emergence coincided precisely with two related phenomena: the emergence of the Sangh Parivar as the dominant political force in the country, and the fragmentation of the Congress. It is not enough to point the finger at the Sangh Parivar, because the two terms of the Congress-led UPA government saw little in the way of course-correction. Indeed, A.K. Anthony’s long stint as Defense Minister saw the worst neglect of defense priorities since 1962. Broken beyond repair, the Congress – the party that once exemplified dynamism in foreign policy – no longer has a foreign policy at all, and has not had one for decades.

The Indian state that was born in 1947 could function as a ‘normal’ state in the world because its running was in the hands of a small elite that saw the world as a geopolitical globe of states, boundaries and interests in the present time. In 1962, 1965, 1971 and even the 1980s, Indian governments were able to work with a rational, modern sense of foreign threats and partners; it is not surprising that in that period, the Chinese threat was managed more or less rationally. It is precisely when obsession with the ‘anti-national Muslim’ became a ‘foreign policy’ that India’s China policy became insubstantial and unmoored from reality. (The contrast between the strategic comprehension of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Sam Manekshaw on the one hand, and of Narendra Modi and Bipin Rawat on the other, is so stark as to be almost comical.) The globe had been taken over by the denizens of a flat earth, who found the tools and icons of modernity not only useful but irresistible even as they shifted the agenda of governance, nationhood and the state. Thus, the debatable shamelessness of failing to respond to a foreign threat is connected with the indisputable shamelessness of lynching, pogroms and punishing those who failed to stand for the national anthem: when a democracy functions in the latter mode, it has already normalized the former.

There are occasions in history when even a shameless regime can be shamed out of existence by military defeat. Some who are dismayed by the fascistic inclinations of the current disposition in India may have hopes that losing a war to China will weaken the BJP at home. That expectation is almost certainly misplaced. There will probably be no major war, and therefore no major embarrassment for the government and no electoral setback in 2019. There will only be a small slap in the mountains, and the sting will fade quickly. The government can even take credit for not backing down until the slap came. (Indeed, this is precisely the ‘face-saving formula’ that the government seems to have chosen.) Other states will notice, and Indian credibility in the world will take a beating, but in the neighborhood that matters in domestic politics – the neighborhood of the flat earth – what happens in that world is unreal and irrelevant.

The quiet drama that has been unfolding in Bhutan over the past several weeks – with Indian and Chinese troops facing off yet again over a disputed and uncertainly demarcated border – has now reached a point where it can become both a minor tragedy and a farce. A ‘war’ between India and China is now more likely than not. While a conflict between two enormous and nuclear-armed adversaries can be expected to be momentous and transformative in its political and strategic consequences, not to mention highly lethal, the reality is that the clash, if it comes, will be none of those things. It will change very little, not least because it will not be much of a war.

‘War’ implies a certain scale of hostilities. In the Doklam sector, where the current face-off is taking place, a very small number of Indian troops (the numbers range from a high of 270 to a low of 40) are holding the line, so to speak, against roughly comparable numbers of Chinese. Both sides are armed with light personal firearms, pointed carefully at the ground. American police departments are more heavily armed. The Indian soldiers have formed human chains by holding hands; the Chinese have politely refrained from breaking the chain. But the parity of weakness is deceptive, because behind the Chinese border guards stand the actual body of the People’s Liberation Army and its air force, deployed across the Tibetan plateau, whereas behind the Indians there is nothing except some very high mountains. The geography of the region has not changed since the 1962 border conflict. If (or rather, when) the Chinese decide to expel the 270 (or 40) Indians from ‘their’ territory, they can do so in a matter of hours, using a relatively low level of force: a few hundred lightly armed troops, backed by gas, helicopters and armored personnel carriers, can effectively ‘arrest’ and ‘expel’ the ‘intruders.’ A few men will probably die, but it will be more in the nature of crowd control than war. Indeed, it will be probably less of a war than 1962, which came with a real sense of national emergency, and a real – if badly mismanaged – attempt to fight back with available military and diplomatic resources.

This time, it is unlikely that there will be any Indian attempt to escalate or fight back. Air power will not be deployed, nor the navy used in any capacity. In the fairly long time that has passed since this confrontation began, there have been no major Indian troop movements, no new deployments, no theater-specific training exercises, no flurry of consultations between the government and the military, no lining up of allies, no rush to stockpile ammunition and spare parts, no hurry to build defensive fortifications. Militarily, it is as if nothing has happened or will happen. There has been more talk of deploying a tank on the JNU campus than of deploying tanks in Bhutan, Ladakh or Arunachal. (Even the Indian media, forever ready to beat the war drum when it comes to Pakistan, has been circumspect as a mouse.) When the Chinese make their move, the Indian government and political parties will huff and puff with outrage, then subside into a wounded sulk of medium duration. There may be some noises on the diplomatic front, but these are unlikely to be especially significant: even a radical shift in the Indian position on Chinese sovereignty in Tibet will do little to affect the status quo in Tibet, and no country in the world – probably not even India – will move to isolate an economy as valuable as the Chinese. Not surprisingly, the Indian government, the media and other institutions of Indian nationalism have adopted a position that can be described only as fatalistic.

There is a ‘why’ and a ‘so what’ to be addressed here, and both are large, complex questions with layered answers. The most straightforward answer to the question why the Indian response has been fatalistic is that even after the 1962 debacle, the Indian defense establishment did not prepare consistently for a conflict with China. The matter of consistence is important, because there have been periods of adequate preparation. In 1967, for instance, improvements in military capability ensured that Indian forces won the localized clashes that broke out at Nathu La and Cho La in the Sikkim sector. Through the 1970s, the combination of Sino-Soviet hostility and the Indo-Soviet quasi-alliance provided almost ironclad defense, and well into the 1980s, more or less reasonable decisions on the import of weaponry from the USSR, France and Britain meant that Indian military equipment had a qualitative edge that compensated partially for Chinese quantitative superiority. In this period, the Indian military also trained proactively to fight in the north, something it had hardly done at all before 1962.

The inconsistency lay in the total failure to build up a defensive infrastructure along the border. While China laid thousands of miles of roads and rail tracks in Tibet and built a network of forward air fields, hardly anything was done on the Indian side of the zone of contention, partly out of a reluctance to provoke China, partly out of a sense that the existing security arrangement was adequate, and partly out of certain deficiencies in the nature of the Indian state. It was not foreseen that the Soviet partnership would not only fall apart, but partially reverse itself, with Russia providing the Chinese military with a new generation of sophisticated weaponry. Even when the transformation of China into a major economic, industrial and scientific power courted by both sides of the erstwhile Cold War (which is the real hallmark of the obsolescence of Non-Alignment) became apparent, new roads and airfields in the Indian far north appeared only in fits and starts, in a series of always-delayed half-measures, interrupted by changes in government, obstructed by the bureaucracy, seeping through the cracks of an overwhelming lethargy of the state. The army’s ambitious plan for a Mountain Strike Corps, or a major formation specialized for offensive operations across the Himalayas, has been scaled back and is behind schedule. Indian military acquisitions in this post-Cold-War period actually became slower and harder to rationalize, even as they became wildly expensive and beset by corruption. Every plan for the enhancement of war-fighting capabilities has proceeded so slowly that it is obsolete before it is complete.

What had existed between India and China between 1962 and 1989 was not actual military parity; China was always the bigger power. There existed, rather, an effective arrangement, diplomatic and military, for offsetting the imbalance. The core of any such arrangement lies in recognizing that in a war of even a limited scale, the enemy will win. That trick, however, is to make that victory sufficiently expensive that it is not worth ‘purchasing.’ Even a relatively weak power can, for instance, seize and hold a piece of enemy territory long enough to force a ‘victor’ to either negotiate or prolong the war, or destroy a few, specific, high-value targets that the enemy is loath to lose. The capability must be well known, for its primary purpose is deterrence. This is a trick that Pakistan has learned and deployed quite effectively in its relations with India since 1971. Before 1971, the Pakistani military entertained delusions of winning a war against India, which proved counterproductive. But in the 1980s, Pakistan could deter an Indian attack on Kahuta by making it clear that it could, and would, strike Indian nuclear installations in return. Later, when India dealt with the shortcomings exposed by Operation Parakram by formulating the ‘Cold Start’ plan of rapid invasion, Pakistan was able to counter effectively with a comprehensive, if suicidal, doctrine of tactical nuclear war, limiting India to nothing beyond semi-fantastic ‘surgical strikes.’

When it comes to China, India has done none of these things. There is no known plan, posture or doctrine, conventional or nuclear, that promise to exact a price for ‘victory’: nothing that the army, air force and navy have equipped, trained and deployed for. The occasional exercises and public hugs with the US and Japan are entirely inadequate and unserious; they have produced nothing in way of a trigger or a mechanism of deployment – structural and diplomatic – that would ensure that if the Chinese attack forty or two hundred Indian soldiers in Bhutan, they will be purchasing a wider war. They amount to little more than public relations exercises. The Indian government is perfectly aware of these dynamics; hence the fatalistic waiting for the Chinese to deliver a limited blow in a limited place, get it over with, and carry on with business as usual.

Now, to the so-what. The Indian refusal (for it is not inability alone) to respond to an explicit threat from China shows, firstly, that India at the present time is not a nation-state in the standard modern sense of a sovereign entity wary of its neighboring states. It is obsessed with Pakistan, not so much as a fully separate entity as with an internal component of Indian nationhood: an Indian itch that must be scratched constantly.  Indian nationalism today is subalternized, more concerned with cow-protection than with doctrines and strategy, less invested in correcting what went wrong in NEFA in 1962 than in refighting the Battle of Haldighati. It would concede, albeit regretfully, strategic territory to China if that means getting back to the real business of cow-protection and love-jihad, i.e., to confronting Muslims and liberals. It may be pointless for the Chinese to keep warning India about an impending humiliation, because unlike the India of 1962 (by which I mean a tiny sliver of the population), the India of 2017 is shameless, unconcerned with the terms of shame and self-respect by which nation-states operate. It likes tanks and missiles, but mainly as decorations and badges in a posture of prestige, much as a newly moneyed member of the elite might display his toys (carefully wrapped in plastic) without being overly concerned about their ‘proper’ use.

The Beijing regime recently complained that India is using the Doklam stand-off to divert attention from its ‘real problems,’ i.e., from domestic politics. The analysis is quite incorrect. What India is doing (and not doing) relative to China is not a distraction from internal politics, but a reflection of the kind of state that incubates those politics. This India does not care about China one way or another, either as a good neighbor or as an expansionist bully. The pejorative connotations of shamelessness are not readily applicable to this apparent indifference to threats and defeat. After all, the nationalism of competing states is hardly a benign dynamic in the history of the modern world. But the Indian indifference is not a rejection of violent national competition. It is, rather, an unprecedented form of nationalism and democracy, in which the (Hindu) nation’s capture of the sovereign (Indian) state has not completed the quest for sovereignty, which has now become entangled with an unending search for dominance and revenge within the state and a collapsed neighborhood.

As a policy-making institution, this insular nation (that, unlike Britain, does not see itself as an island in a wider world, but mistakes the island for the world) is clearly a historical development rather than a ‘cultural’ phenomenon. Its emergence coincided precisely with two related phenomena: the emergence of the Sangh Parivar as the dominant political force in the country, and the fragmentation of the Congress. It is not enough to point the finger at the Sangh Parivar, because the two terms of the Congress-led UPA government saw little in the way of course-correction. Indeed, A.K. Anthony’s long stint as Defense Minister saw the worst neglect of defense priorities since 1962. Broken beyond repair, the Congress – the party that once exemplified dynamism in foreign policy – no longer has a foreign policy at all, and has not had one for decades.

The Indian state that was born in 1947 could function as a ‘normal’ state in the world because its running was in the hands of a small elite that saw the world as a geopolitical globe of states, boundaries and interests in the present time. In 1962, 1965, 1971 and even the 1980s, Indian governments were able to work with a rational, modern sense of foreign threats and partners; it is not surprising that in that period, the Chinese threat was managed more or less rationally. It is precisely when obsession with the ‘anti-national Muslim’ became a ‘foreign policy’ that India’s China policy became insubstantial and unmoored from reality. (The contrast between the strategic comprehension of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Sam Manekshaw on the one hand, and of Narendra Modi and Bipin Rawat on the other, is so stark as to be almost comical.) The globe had been taken over by the denizens of a flat earth, who found the tools and icons of modernity not only useful but irresistible even as they shifted the agenda of governance, nationhood and the state. Thus, the debatable shamelessness of failing to respond to a foreign threat is connected with the indisputable shamelessness of lynching, pogroms and punishing those who failed to stand for the national anthem: when a democracy functions in the latter mode, it has already normalized the former.

There are occasions in history when even a shameless regime can be shamed out of existence by military defeat. Some who are dismayed by the fascistic inclinations of the current disposition in India may have hopes that losing a war to China will weaken the BJP at home. That expectation is almost certainly misplaced. There will probably be no major war, and therefore no major embarrassment for the government and no electoral setback in 2019. There will only be a small slap in the mountains, and the sting will fade quickly. The government can even take credit for not backing down until the slap came. (Indeed, this is precisely the ‘face-saving formula’ that the government seems to have chosen.) Other states will notice, and Indian credibility in the world will take a beating, but in the neighborhood that matters in domestic politics – the neighborhood of the flat earth – what happens in that world is unreal and irrelevant.

The quiet drama that has been unfolding in Bhutan over the past several weeks – with Indian and Chinese troops facing off yet again over a disputed and uncertainly demarcated border – has now reached a point where it can become both a minor tragedy and a farce. A ‘war’ between India and China is now more likely than not. While a conflict between two enormous and nuclear-armed adversaries can be expected to be momentous and transformative in its political and strategic consequences, not to mention highly lethal, the reality is that the clash, if it comes, will be none of those things. It will change very little, not least because it will not be much of a war.

‘War’ implies a certain scale of hostilities. In the Doklam sector, where the current face-off is taking place, a very small number of Indian troops (the numbers range from a high of 270 to a low of 40) are holding the line, so to speak, against roughly comparable numbers of Chinese. Both sides are armed with light personal firearms, pointed carefully at the ground. American police departments are more heavily armed. The Indian soldiers have formed human chains by holding hands; the Chinese have politely refrained from breaking the chain. But the parity of weakness is deceptive, because behind the Chinese border guards stand the actual body of the People’s Liberation Army and its air force, deployed across the Tibetan plateau, whereas behind the Indians there is nothing except some very high mountains. The geography of the region has not changed since the 1962 border conflict. If (or rather, when) the Chinese decide to expel the 270 (or 40) Indians from ‘their’ territory, they can do so in a matter of hours, using a relatively low level of force: a few hundred lightly armed troops, backed by gas, helicopters and armored personnel carriers, can effectively ‘arrest’ and ‘expel’ the ‘intruders.’ A few men will probably die, but it will be more in the nature of crowd control than war. Indeed, it will be probably less of a war than 1962, which came with a real sense of national emergency, and a real – if badly mismanaged – attempt to fight back with available military and diplomatic resources.

This time, it is unlikely that there will be any Indian attempt to escalate or fight back. Air power will not be deployed, nor the navy used in any capacity. In the fairly long time that has passed since this confrontation began, there have been no major Indian troop movements, no new deployments, no theater-specific training exercises, no flurry of consultations between the government and the military, no lining up of allies, no rush to stockpile ammunition and spare parts, no hurry to build defensive fortifications. Militarily, it is as if nothing has happened or will happen. There has been more talk of deploying a tank on the JNU campus than of deploying tanks in Bhutan, Ladakh or Arunachal. (Even the Indian media, forever ready to beat the war drum when it comes to Pakistan, has been circumspect as a mouse.) When the Chinese make their move, the Indian government and political parties will huff and puff with outrage, then subside into a wounded sulk of medium duration. There may be some noises on the diplomatic front, but these are unlikely to be especially significant: even a radical shift in the Indian position on Chinese sovereignty in Tibet will do little to affect the status quo in Tibet, and no country in the world – probably not even India – will move to isolate an economy as valuable as the Chinese. Not surprisingly, the Indian government, the media and other institutions of Indian nationalism have adopted a position that can be described only as fatalistic.

There is a ‘why’ and a ‘so what’ to be addressed here, and both are large, complex questions with layered answers. The most straightforward answer to the question why the Indian response has been fatalistic is that even after the 1962 debacle, the Indian defense establishment did not prepare consistently for a conflict with China. The matter of consistence is important, because there have been periods of adequate preparation. In 1967, for instance, improvements in military capability ensured that Indian forces won the localized clashes that broke out at Nathu La and Cho La in the Sikkim sector. Through the 1970s, the combination of Sino-Soviet hostility and the Indo-Soviet quasi-alliance provided almost ironclad defense, and well into the 1980s, more or less reasonable decisions on the import of weaponry from the USSR, France and Britain meant that Indian military equipment had a qualitative edge that compensated partially for Chinese quantitative superiority. In this period, the Indian military also trained proactively to fight in the north, something it had hardly done at all before 1962.

The inconsistency lay in the total failure to build up a defensive infrastructure along the border. While China laid thousands of miles of roads and rail tracks in Tibet and built a network of forward air fields, hardly anything was done on the Indian side of the zone of contention, partly out of a reluctance to provoke China, partly out of a sense that the existing security arrangement was adequate, and partly out of certain deficiencies in the nature of the Indian state. It was not foreseen that the Soviet partnership would not only fall apart, but partially reverse itself, with Russia providing the Chinese military with a new generation of sophisticated weaponry. Even when the transformation of China into a major economic, industrial and scientific power courted by both sides of the erstwhile Cold War (which is the real hallmark of the obsolescence of Non-Alignment) became apparent, new roads and airfields in the Indian far north appeared only in fits and starts, in a series of always-delayed half-measures, interrupted by changes in government, obstructed by the bureaucracy, seeping through the cracks of an overwhelming lethargy of the state. The army’s ambitious plan for a Mountain Strike Corps, or a major formation specialized for offensive operations across the Himalayas, has been scaled back and is behind schedule. Indian military acquisitions in this post-Cold-War period actually became slower and harder to rationalize, even as they became wildly expensive and beset by corruption. Every plan for the enhancement of war-fighting capabilities has proceeded so slowly that it is obsolete before it is complete.

What had existed between India and China between 1962 and 1989 was not actual military parity; China was always the bigger power. There existed, rather, an effective arrangement, diplomatic and military, for offsetting the imbalance. The core of any such arrangement lies in recognizing that in a war of even a limited scale, the enemy will win. That trick, however, is to make that victory sufficiently expensive that it is not worth ‘purchasing.’ Even a relatively weak power can, for instance, seize and hold a piece of enemy territory long enough to force a ‘victor’ to either negotiate or prolong the war, or destroy a few, specific, high-value targets that the enemy is loath to lose. The capability must be well known, for its primary purpose is deterrence. This is a trick that Pakistan has learned and deployed quite effectively in its relations with India since 1971. Before 1971, the Pakistani military entertained delusions of winning a war against India, which proved counterproductive. But in the 1980s, Pakistan could deter an Indian attack on Kahuta by making it clear that it could, and would, strike Indian nuclear installations in return. Later, when India dealt with the shortcomings exposed by Operation Parakram by formulating the ‘Cold Start’ plan of rapid invasion, Pakistan was able to counter effectively with a comprehensive, if suicidal, doctrine of tactical nuclear war, limiting India to nothing beyond semi-fantastic ‘surgical strikes.’

When it comes to China, India has done none of these things. There is no known plan, posture or doctrine, conventional or nuclear, that promise to exact a price for ‘victory’: nothing that the army, air force and navy have equipped, trained and deployed for. The occasional exercises and public hugs with the US and Japan are entirely inadequate and unserious; they have produced nothing in way of a trigger or a mechanism of deployment – structural and diplomatic – that would ensure that if the Chinese attack forty or two hundred Indian soldiers in Bhutan, they will be purchasing a wider war. They amount to little more than public relations exercises. The Indian government is perfectly aware of these dynamics; hence the fatalistic waiting for the Chinese to deliver a limited blow in a limited place, get it over with, and carry on with business as usual.

Now, to the so-what. The Indian refusal (for it is not inability alone) to respond to an explicit threat from China shows, firstly, that India at the present time is not a nation-state in the standard modern sense of a sovereign entity wary of its neighboring states. It is obsessed with Pakistan, not so much as a fully separate entity as with an internal component of Indian nationhood: an Indian itch that must be scratched constantly.  Indian nationalism today is subalternized, more concerned with cow-protection than with doctrines and strategy, less invested in correcting what went wrong in NEFA in 1962 than in refighting the Battle of Haldighati. It would concede, albeit regretfully, strategic territory to China if that means getting back to the real business of cow-protection and love-jihad, i.e., to confronting Muslims and liberals. It may be pointless for the Chinese to keep warning India about an impending humiliation, because unlike the India of 1962 (by which I mean a tiny sliver of the population), the India of 2017 is shameless, unconcerned with the terms of shame and self-respect by which nation-states operate. It likes tanks and missiles, but mainly as decorations and badges in a posture of prestige, much as a newly moneyed member of the elite might display his toys (carefully wrapped in plastic) without being overly concerned about their ‘proper’ use.

The Beijing regime recently complained that India is using the Doklam stand-off to divert attention from its ‘real problems,’ i.e., from domestic politics. The analysis is quite incorrect. What India is doing (and not doing) relative to China is not a distraction from internal politics, but a reflection of the kind of state that incubates those politics. This India does not care about China one way or another, either as a good neighbor or as an expansionist bully. The pejorative connotations of shamelessness are not readily applicable to this apparent indifference to threats and defeat. After all, the nationalism of competing states is hardly a benign dynamic in the history of the modern world. But the Indian indifference is not a rejection of violent national competition. It is, rather, an unprecedented form of nationalism and democracy, in which the (Hindu) nation’s capture of the sovereign (Indian) state has not completed the quest for sovereignty, which has now become entangled with an unending search for dominance and revenge within the state and a collapsed neighborhood.

As a policy-making institution, this insular nation (that, unlike Britain, does not see itself as an island in a wider world, but mistakes the island for the world) is clearly a historical development rather than a ‘cultural’ phenomenon. Its emergence coincided precisely with two related phenomena: the emergence of the Sangh Parivar as the dominant political force in the country, and the fragmentation of the Congress. It is not enough to point the finger at the Sangh Parivar, because the two terms of the Congress-led UPA government saw little in the way of course-correction. Indeed, A.K. Anthony’s long stint as Defense Minister saw the worst neglect of defense priorities since 1962. Broken beyond repair, the Congress – the party that once exemplified dynamism in foreign policy – no longer has a foreign policy at all, and has not had one for decades.

The Indian state that was born in 1947 could function as a ‘normal’ state in the world because its running was in the hands of a small elite that saw the world as a geopolitical globe of states, boundaries and interests in the present time. In 1962, 1965, 1971 and even the 1980s, Indian governments were able to work with a rational, modern sense of foreign threats and partners; it is not surprising that in that period, the Chinese threat was managed more or less rationally. It is precisely when obsession with the ‘anti-national Muslim’ became a ‘foreign policy’ that India’s China policy became insubstantial and unmoored from reality. (The contrast between the strategic comprehension of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Sam Manekshaw on the one hand, and of Narendra Modi and Bipin Rawat on the other, is so stark as to be almost comical.) The globe had been taken over by the denizens of a flat earth, who found the tools and icons of modernity not only useful but irresistible even as they shifted the agenda of governance, nationhood and the state. Thus, the debatable shamelessness of failing to respond to a foreign threat is connected with the indisputable shamelessness of lynching, pogroms and punishing those who failed to stand for the national anthem: when a democracy functions in the latter mode, it has already normalized the former.

There are occasions in history when even a shameless regime can be shamed out of existence by military defeat. Some who are dismayed by the fascistic inclinations of the current disposition in India may have hopes that losing a war to China will weaken the BJP at home. That expectation is almost certainly misplaced. There will probably be no major war, and therefore no major embarrassment for the government and no electoral setback in 2019. There will only be a small slap in the mountains, and the sting will fade quickly. The government can even take credit for not backing down until the slap came. (Indeed, this is precisely the ‘face-saving formula’ that the government seems to have chosen.) Other states will notice, and Indian credibility in the world will take a beating, but in the neighborhood that matters in domestic politics – the neighborhood of the flat earth – what happens in that world is unreal and irrelevant.

August 7, 2017