The prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi, warned China, India’s largest trading partner and neighbour, to abandon its mind-set of expansion, when he visited the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh in February 2014. Not surprisingly, Modi’s provocative rhetoric fits the tone of the BJP’s political ideology. As India’s parliamentary elections are underway, the recent opinion polls indicate that the BJP might achieve its best ever election success. Accordingly, the ‘Modi wave’ enlivens political debate and leaves analysts wondering: ‘Will a BJP win lead to a U-turn in foreign policy regarding Sino-Indian relations?‘
The Prime Minister of the governing Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, Manmohan Singh, by pursuing a ‘pragmatic’ approach, has made great efforts to improve India’s relations with two estranged great powers, China and the United States, during its ten-year tenure. In the light of this improvement, India and China have ratified more than fifty agreements since 1988. In particular, they have signed three landmark treaties for settling border disputes, while over the same period, bilateral trade has dramatically increased from about US$200 million in 1988 to US$65.5 billion in 2013. Therefore, should Rahul Gandhi lead the Congress to victory, the Congress-led coalition’s foreign policy is not likely to change much. However, should the BJP be successful, as is likely, it is likely to precipitate a shock in Sino-Indian relations, not only by revealing its right-wing ‘Hindu nationalist’ identity, but also by mirroring the ruling experience of when it was in power a decade ago.
According to the released BJP Election Manifesto on 7 April, the BJP did not specifically mention ties with China and said it would improve relations with its neighbours, but emphasized it would not hesitate from taking ‘strong stands and steps’. Given this unclear definition of ‘proactive diplomacy’ in their manifesto, it is worth mentioning Modi‘s respect for Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the only BJP prime minister in Indian history (1998 to 2004), who took a mixed approach to China, both hard-line and engaged. Looking further back in history, Vajpayee, who, as External Affairs Minister in the Janata government of 1977-9, was the first foreign minister to visit Beijing since 1962, had the embarrassing experience of being in Beijing when China invaded Vietnam, proclaiming that it would ‘teach them a lesson’ – a reminder of India’s humiliating defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian border war. With this unpleasant memory in his mind, Vajpayee initiated the 1998 nuclear tests, justifying India’s actions by declaring a ‘China threat’ and his Defence Minister, George Fernandes, named China as India’s ‘enemy number one’. Their declaration brought about the nadir of Sino-Indian relations since the initiation of the Sino-Indian rapprochement in 1988.
Five years later, however, Vajpayee and Fernandes, with the intention of improving relations, visited Beijing and signed nine memorandums; hence, India’s analysts marked Vajpayee as a pragmatic and moderate BJP leader. Despite this, the BJP-led government appears to have left an ‘anti-China’ image in the minds of the Chinese public. In addition, the BJP’s attempt at breaking India’s international isolation and improving its economic ties with great powers, such as China and the US, was far less effective than the Congress-led coalition had been.
Some strategic analysts have drawn attention to the contradiction of Modi’s present stance against China, given his successful ‘Gujarat developmental model’, which encouraged his state’s foreign trading opportunities, particularly with Israel and China. This program showed him to be more ‘economics-oriented’ rather than ‘right-wing nationalistic’. On the face of it, therefore, it might appear that if he became Prime Minister he would emulate Vajpayee’s pragmatic approach by concentrating his attention on economic liberalization and on India’s economic relations with China rather than provoking offensive actions over contentious border issues. However, it is hard to ignore the influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organization, to which Modi is closely connected, with its avowed purpose of protecting the Hindu Rashtra (Nation), its mistrust of the West, and its anti-Muslim and anti-capitalism ideology. The question therefore is; would Modi be able to resist pressure from RSS hard-liners by taking a more pragmatic approach towards national security policy?
The answer, of course, is unknown. China has commented that it hoped the Indian election would proceed smoothly and that it could continue to improve ties with India. But, I would expect the BJP, freed from the policy of the Congress-led regime and without having to carry the historical burden of the Sino-Indian border war, to declassify an Indian army report into the reason for India’s defeat in the 1962 war with China, which was classified by the Congress-led government as ‘top secret’, and which criticized the Jawaharlal Nehru government for misreading the intelligence (Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ launched aggressive patrols in areas occupied by the Chinese, provoking Chinese counter measures against India in 1962). The declassification of the report will help to clarify the age-old misunderstanding of Sino-Indian relations. A governing right-wing BJP, therefore, could at least ‘restore the historical “right” ’- and let the historical facts be open to public scrutiny.
Lan-Shu Tseng is a third-year PhD student of School of Politics and International Relations at University of Nottingham