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Perpetually Triggered: The Cost of Being Reactive -- Arindam Mukherjee

China intruded along sectors of Ladakh a couple of weeks ago and attacked Indian jawans. There followed a skirmish in which several of our brave soldiers were martyred. This cascaded into a series of events: Indian soldiers hunted and killed unknown number of soldiers of the PLA, Covid-19 saturated media went into a frenzy, the Indian voices debating about boycotting Chinese products became louder, the PM had an all-party-meet where most supported him unanimously except a few, both nations issued official statements, there were serious debates all over about the stance that New Delhi took, and so on.

Most of us know that and have been following that quite closely. Yes, most among us have limited access to the truth and would not know for sure whether China has held on or has been pushed back, whether they intruded, or they did not – as the PM says, how far have their infra-building projects proceeded, and that is why these would make for debate and discussion topics. However, the point in my mind comes wrapped in a certain amount of helplessness; I do not know for sure if there would be any discussion around it.

My hopelessness tells me that if the whole truth is that the PLA intruded and stayed back, do not be surprised because that is the way China has gone about appropriating land from its neighbours all around. It also says if the whole truth is that China did not intrude but was merely ‘testing waters’, don’t be surprised because the plan then must have been to distract; they must be up to something else that has wider repercussions. And if those of you reading this think that way too, then the following few paragraphs have something for you to reflect.   

Note: it is always about someone else. It is seldom about us. Pakistan sends their irregulars, Nepal or Sri Lanka moves away and into the folds of China, ‘sworn friends’ sell us overpriced military hardware, foreign agencies fund separatists and riots, apart from controlling the lion’s share of media propaganda… It is an exhaustive list. What however interests me is the pattern. It is always ‘them’ – the villains. Never us. The proverbial bad guys forever mess with our happiness as our history of helplessness continues.  

We are quite an airy lot. There was a time when we excelled in demonstrating a certain moral high ground as a function of ideological superiority. From rejecting requests of smaller neighbours to be included in the political map and gifting real estates to random nations, to leaving UNSC seat to China, how we were could be equated with the poster boys of yesteryears’ Bollywood: that time when the central character of most movies would be the ethical equivalent of the subcontinental mythological heroes.

In a turn of events – that have some history in the shape of an increasing external pressure on Indian identity, and some contemporary attraction in shape of nationalistic politics around the globe, these days we have been trying to project a more robust image. There is one issue with that. Strength, muscle etc are usually the result of many years of focus. They are lifestyle choices, not contraptions like the Batman costume.

Non-alignment is dead and gone. The new-old-gamers are looking for ‘combatants’ to team up with. It used to be called the Grand Chessboard during the Cold War era; the 21st century game sees a remarkable lack of patience in comparison. There is a constant flux, and quite complex relationships exist between nations based on consideration and/or rejection of clauses that could easily baffle many. “World politics is not a popularity contest” says Portuguese politician and Secy of State for European Affairs in Portugal, Bruno Macaes. It is no more a stage where one can afford to be ambiguous.  

Why do we fail to meet the cut?

The stock that breeds subcontinental political leadership across the UPA-NDA spectrum remains hardwired predominantly to posture for elections, with little demonstrable knowledge about international relations and geopolitics. Successful Indian politicians are powerful brands when it comes to wooing the average voter and this works well in a setup that has been designed to remain busy with elections and posturing for elections in between. This weakness marks in most imperatives that get decided along the international arena – most of which are reactive in nature; naturally. That is where the ‘them’ factors in, as ‘we’ remain innocent/ clueless/ both.

What choices do we have?

The believers can continue being upbeat with the leadership posturing. It is someone today; could be someone else tomorrow, but the bottom line would be “Can’t you see he/she is trying!?” One cannot go on pretending to cook endlessly. An aroma must be followed by a dish, otherwise it is coming from someone else’s kitchen. That is the rule. Observers interested in the affairs of South Asia would keep seeing through, while the average Indian believer would continue missing the forest for the trees.

The wise ones can continue with the idea of ‘chalta hai’ (for the uninitiated that translates to ‘stuff happens’). We have been invaded, converted, and colonialised. We have been starved, killed, enslaved, raped, and carved. We have had dynasties and vote-bank politics. We still do. Under the light of those, China is just another bleep in the radar. Wriggling past is ‘us’. On top of that this is the postmodern era. There are millions of interpretations of everything; and there sure would be one for those that celebrate through some esoteric philosophical concept the losing of their land character and identity, should it come to that.

The old fashioned might try to create awareness about the fact that no nation predicating its existence on the idea of ‘scraping through’ from one crisis to the next is expected to envision a leadership role of any form or shape. And hope to get the message across to a more enterprising and conscientious bunch that would dig their heels on that to try and conceptualize ways that could change the mindset.

Until then, in a spirit that is true to the interplay between the proactive and the reactive, those that are hands-on would move their pieces, and slice dice or strategize, and those that keep sitting would keep jumping up or down depending on how it pinches.


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