The leader of India's Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, in a file photo. Photo: Reuters / Anindito Mukherje

Last Friday evening, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar fired salvos of tweets at Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Indian National Congress. Jaishankar tweeted a 10-point rebuttal in response to Gandhi’s accusations that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mishandling of the foreign policy paved the way for “China to act against India.”

Posting a 3:38-long video on his official Twitter handle, Gandhi had tried to hold Modi accountable for India’s loss of “strategic autonomy” over the Sino-Indian belligerency in Ladakh. He asked, “Why have the Chinese chosen this particular time? What is it about India’s situation that has made China act in such an aggressive way? What is it about this moment in time that has allowed the Chinese to have the confidence that they can move against a country like India?”

Gandhi’s Twitter posting had come after the widespread allegation of the “insipid” and “feeble” leadership of the main opposition party to assert that India’s international affairs should be secluded from domestic politics, which was the long-standing norm that Modi strayed from during his successful re-election bid in 2019.

Gandhi accused Modi of excessive personification of himself as one of the world’s greatest and most influential leaders. He said he was adopting relationships based on “transactions” with the world’s great powers that lead India to a loss of “strategic autonomy.” He also accused Modi of failing to maintain the “strategic autonomy” that the Congress government led by Manmohan Singh had maintained until May 2014.

Until the Ladakh standoff, the government and opposition both held similar views on foreign-policy issues. They were equally cautious about precluding foreign affairs from intramural politics. Many foreign-affairs journalists, strategic analysts, and foreign-policy academicians also held a similar view to the government on India’s standing on foreign policy, both global and regional.

However, Modi bent this norm after the Pulwama terror attack on February 14, 2019. He projected himself as a strongman and used the terror attack to appeal for votes for the upcoming election that was held April and May the same year. Fortunately for him, despite grave domestic policy failures, the terror attack turned out to be an electoral bonanza for Modi in the election.

Unlike the Pulwama terror attack, the opposition parties, along with serious and responsible foreign-affairs journalists, strategic analysts, and foreign-policy academicians, have equally criticized Modi over the Ladakh standoff as a ramification of his mismanagement of China policy.

Consequently, India is divided domestically over a foreign-policy issue for the first time since gaining independence in 1947 from British rule.

One of the main reasons for Gandhi’s dismal performance in the 2019 election was not being able to prevent Modi from bending the long-standing norm of not making foreign policy an electoral issue. Congress also failed to communicate to voters that the Indian military’s success protecting the border was the Indian state’s success, not that of the government only. However, Modi successfully projected the Indian Air Force’s surgical strike on Balakot, Pakistan, following the Pulwama attack as his personal accomplishment.

Although it was too late, in an offensive mode, Gandhi attempted to use Modi’s foreign-policy failure in Ladakh as an opportunity to attack the PM. The personal image of Modi was supposed to be of strength as opposed to Gandhi’s and his party’s weakness. 

Gandhi asked Modi to prove his strongman image in the Ladakh standoff. Interestingly, Gandhi’s allegation came just as US President Donald Trump hinted at a change in his China policy.

Modi failed to take into sufficient consideration that Trump wants above all to be re-elected this November. He wants to use all possible domestic and foreign actors who can help to his re-election bid. Modi looks foolish because he was unable to calculate that Trump was using him to win the presidential election.

Instead, Modi calculated that the US really wanted to support him to contain China at a time when China was briefly vulnerable because of its alleged mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Modi over-relied on his strategic aides and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strategists who suggested that China was in a weak moment and that India could take revenge for its defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war. 

Despite instigating harsh anti-Chinese rhetoric, Trump has failed to prevent a decline in his popularity as compared with his opponent, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Biden leads Trump by a double-digit margin as the gross failure to combat Covid-19 takes a toll on the president in the most recent opinion polls. The latest polls paint a gloomy picture for Trump, and it is not likely he will win re-election merely on anti-Chinese rhetoric. As a result, Trump is under pressure to alter his China strategy.

For instance, the answer by White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany in her regular press briefing on July 17 to a question by Lalit Kumar Jha, the chief US correspondence of the Press Trust of India (PTI), tells the tale of Trump’s recently changed China policy.

The transcription of the dialogue between Lalit and McEnany goes like this:

Lalit: Thank you. Another question on China. President Trump is the only US president to have stood strong against China, which is of great comfort to countries like India and his other allies in the Asian neighborhood. Does he have a message to China on this? And has he spoken with China and other countries on how to collaborate against [inaudible]?

McEnany: Thank you, Lalit. I did see your question earlier, and I brought it to the president, and he said, “I love the people of India, and I love the people of China, and I want to do everything possible to keep the peace for the people.” Thank you.

Besides, McEnany in her regular press briefing on July 21 made no mention of China and evaded a question on China.

Trump himself has changed his tone after his July 14 statement in which he mentioned China 60 times. In his remarks on negotiations on a Phase 4 coronavirus stimulus on July 20, Trump mentioned China seven times. Still, his tone was conciliatory, and in his statement on health care on July 21, Trump mentioned China 10 times, and his tone was even more conciliatory.

This clearly shows that Trump wants to use Modi for his electoral victory.

Gandhi tried to hold Modi accountable for his foreign-policy failure in Ladakh at an appropriate time. On behalf of Modi, Jaishankar replied to Gandhi by posting long Twitter threads to “ask the analysts” about Modi’s achievement in forging partnerships with major world powers.

“@RahulGandhi his questions on Foreign Policy. Here are some answers: Our major partnerships are stronger and international standing higher. Witness regular summits and informal meetings with the US, Russia, Europe, and Japan. India engages with China on more equal terms politically. Ask the analysts,” Jaishankar said in his reply.

Gandhi again tried to hold Modi accountable for the mishandling of foreign policy by posting another video on July 20. He said, “PM fabricated a fake strongman image to come to power. It was his biggest strength. It is now India’s biggest weakness.”

Now, Modi has been pushed on to the back foot. He lacks any domestic or foreign policy issue with which to achieve “escape velocity” to counterbalance the “gravitational force” that will soon trigger a free-fall of his popularity.

Modi wants to distract the attention of taxpayers and voters on his grave failure to combat the Covid-19 pandemic on the domestic front and the Ladakh standoff on the foreign-policy front by the Shilanyas (laying the foundation stone) of Ram Temple is to be officially started the construction in the ancient town of Ayodhya on August 5. However, that alone cannot help Modi to avert the free-fall of his popularity. 

Modi’s strongman image is under severe questioning both domestically and internationally. To maintain that image, Modi has only one option available. Maintaining the status quo of the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) between India and China ante May 8, 2020, is the only option, but that is possible only by the use of force. If Modi chooses this option, there will be defeat, because no allies will help India seriously.

The economic and military parity doesn’t match right now between India and China. India thus would face shoddier consequences than in the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

Modi no longer looks like a strongman, domestically or internationally. India is divided internally, and China may not accept any diplomatic solution with Modi on the grounds that he cannot represent a united India.

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.