Nationalism, media and Doklam standoff

Nationalism, media and Doklam standoff

Since June 16, the India-China-Bhutan trijunction area has witnessed a military standoff between the Indian and Chinese troops, after Bhutan raised objections to a Chinese road construction effort.

The territorial dispute resolution here is a complicated task as each party refers to various points in history when conventions and treaties were signed including with the British Raj. Nevertheless, the mood in India and China is, by and large, determined by the media coverage of the issue that in turn has been a driver of nationalistic fervour.

The incumbent governments of India and China are little representations of popular political parties, but a show of powerful leaders embarked on a path to create history. The Narendra Modi wave of 2014 unsurprisingly led to a host of developments that focused on posturing the prime minister as a vanguard of Indian nationalism.

With Modi a year in power, the Indian Army commandos went on a ‘hot-pursuit’ into Myanmar downing Naga militants. After the second year, surgical strikes were launched across the Line of Control targeting terrorist launchpads. Exceptional was the government’s public approval of these operations that only buttressed the popular belief that Modi stood by Indian nationalism better than his predecessors.

Chinese scholar Zheng Wang proclaims that US President Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” is the same as Xi Jinping’s “realising the great rejuvenation of the Chi-
nese nation.” Ever since Xi’s arri-
val to power, China has witnessed a steady rise in its nationalistic passion, aimed at revision of world order, underscoring Chi-
na’s revival of its ancient glory. The Belt and Road Initiative is, hence, perceived as Xi’s pet project. Also, China has been aggressive in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and the Sino-Indian border being the latest of all.

Beyond Bhutan’s concerns, the military standoff has deeper roots in India’s annoyance in the Chinese nationalist calculus. In­dia’s denouncement of the BRI summit in May, supported by Bhu-
tan, seems to have irked the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) eli­te. The Indo-US-Japan allian­ce, as John Garver argues, has only added to the aggravation. This dent on Chinese nationalism is conveyed better by none other than the Chinese media, which is the mouthpiece of the CPC.

The Chinese state-owned Global Times has taken an aggressive stance vis-à-vis India by reminiscing the 1962 war. Former intelligence analyst Jayadeva Ranade, analysing over 20 GT articles published since the standoff, outlines the nature of the threat that China is contemplating.

It includes a wide array: from de-recognition of Sikkim, fomenting insurgency in the North East to active involvement in Kashmir at the behest of Pakistan. The media’s resolve in agitating the Indian public opinion through persistent calls for war preparations is overwhelming.

The media has approached the Doklam standoff with standard reportage instead of prying to prick Indian nationalist sentiments. One reason may be that the mammoth trade relationship between India and China; inclusion of Bhutan and historic complications in the dispute has made a degree of expertise necessary to make comments.

‘Chicken’s neck’

Even in the visual media, news anchors have avoided provoking militaristic nationalism - a stark difference with the Pakistani question. One of the reasons for anxiety among security analysts is the possibility of Chinese targeting the “Chicken’s neck” – the Siliguri region - that can cut off the entire N-E from mainland India. From a military consideration this is greater than the cross-border terrorist threat, yet media’s drive of Indian nationalism is largely Pakistan-oriented.

Consider the example of one of the most watched Indian English news channel, renowned for its culture of noisy debates and declared nationalistic bias. Even as the standoff continued, the hosts were busy exchanging rants with Pakistani military guests in pursuit of TRP.

The leadership in New Delhi has been open to experimenting with nationalism - as visible in chest thumping proclamations following the hot-pursuit in Myanmar and the surgical strikes. Despite best intentions of raising troop morale, however, there seems to have been a realisation that secrecy works better than openness in matters of national security.

Here, the Indian media’s rep-
ortage of the theatre develop­ments and government positi-
ons on the issue is by far unanimous. On the one hand, political leadership has placed a prem­ium on negotiations to settle the dispute through peaceful means. On the other, reports show military preparations on the Indian side, should a contingency occur. Timely release of the CAG report on shortage of ammunition also denotes a disinterest in flaring unwanted nationalism.

Both Xi and Modi are on a thrust to create history. Modi’s persona as a bold revisionist has allowed open shifts in foreign policies towards the US, Israel and Japan. Xi, on the other hand, nurtures a “China Dream”. It is a strange blend of national interest, nationalism and personal glory. In so far as this case goes, India’s firm conviction of cause, pursuance of diplomacy and silent military preparation is ideal. Appreciatively, the opposition also seems to be in favour of it.

(The writer is a Research Scholar, School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi)

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