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Monday, May 13, 2013

Daulat Beg Oldi: More than a storm in a tea cup
By Firdaus Ahmed

Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO)has now entered the lexicon. It will, if strategic commentary critical of the government is anything to go by, in future define the pusillanimity of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government over its two terms. UPA I had its inaction in face of 26/11, while UPA II would be remembered for its dissembling over DBO. Its attempts to forestall such criticism by taking the defence budget to over two lakh crore rupees, positioning India as the leading importer of arms over a five year period, expanding its army by adding a mountain corps comprising two divisions, surreptitiously lining up with the US in global geopolitics, and opening up high altitude airfields, incidentally even at DBO itself, will find mention only in the footnotes. That it has successfully managed to have the Chinese revert to their side of the Line of Actual Control without much ado will be forgotten. 
The UPA has created these conditions for itself and also the current face off. The 'grand old party' has been unable to depart from the Nehruvian paradigm of viewing borders: Indian territory is what it claims as its own. The maximalist interpretation of where India's borders lie is deemed to have penetrated Indian psyche, constraining India's diplomatic position. Consequently, its negotiations with China have not gone beyond aiming to manage the interim till a final settlement. It has been unable and unwilling to condition the Indian mindset away from seeing borders as lines that can be negotiated. 
India feels it can step back from the Nehruvian border paradigm only at this final stage. By a timeline up to end decade, it hopes to have geared up militarily. Its nuclear triad in place, offensive capability on the border and sea control through the air craft carriers in the pipeline will give it the confidence not only to impress China but more importantly to sell the inevitable tradeoffs to its people. This is seen as necessary to enable the government to convey to Indians that concessions, such as on Aksai Chin, are not through fear or coercion but arrived at between equals. 
Also the centre-right ruling party is wary of its flank occupied as it is by its conservative challenger, the BJP, not-so-covertly assisted by far right formations. The right, claiming monopoly of nationalism, would not have allowed the Congress any leeway in terms of 'concessions'. The Congress, tied down by dynastic compulsions, cannot fault the Nehruvian legacy. Thus, this binds the UPA and at one move India finds itself in. 
The run up to end decade has imponderables: China's actions being one. While China could otherwise have waited till end-decade, it is uneasy with India's US tilt. India, impressed by rising Chinese power, has sought to balance against this through forging relations with the US, as also a defence relationship in terms of military exercises and arms deals. Watching India cosying up with the US, China is sending India a signal to stay out of US designs for containment of China by a ring of democracies. The intrusion could alternatively have a lesser aim of diverting India while its ally, Pakistan, goes to the polls. 
China knows it has the upper hand at the moment, one set to dissipate as India gets its act together. This explains its choice of timing. Its point conveyed or, in the alternative explanation, with Pakistan going into elections without a crisis on its India border, the DBO intrusion, sensibly played down by it, has been retracted. The visit of the Chinese premier due soon will ensure that it is confined to history. However, such instances will likely recur in case the LAC is not converted into an IB soon. 
It is noteworthy that China's borders with all states other than India and its ally, Bhutan, have been settled. Assuming that Indians cannot countenance the concessions negotiations necessarily imply, India has held back. Believing that China has a head start in its military and infrastructure development in Tibet, India is attempting to catch up with border roads, military deployments and airfield construction coming up simultaneously in a truncated timeframe. The strategic discourse has provided the cover in painting China as a threat and a future India-China clash over space in Asia. The UPA has so far been mindful of not being stampeded by strategist-manipulated and media-fanned public opinion, thanks to a China hand at the rudder, that of National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon. Over reacting to DBO, compelled by elections just over the horizon, can find India replicating the 'forward policy', adopted in the run up to 1962. 
India has the option of reappraising the assumption. Studies ranging from the early one by Neville Maxwell to the more recent scholarly works by AG Noorani and Srinath Raghavan suggest that there is more to India's position on the border than the popular narrative of China stabbing India in the back in 1962. Political investment is needed in educating the Indian public that borders are never self-ordained but mutually arrived at. 
This admittedly is easier said than done because DBO has wider connotations. What can be expected to figure in strategic discourse generated by a right tilting strategic community will be its showing up India as a 'soft state'. The corollary left unstated in sober commentary, but circulated uninhibitedly in middle class e-groups, will be that a different political order, if not a 'strong man', is needed lead endangered India to salvage national pride. The Congress, on the back-foot over at least half a decade, cannot hope to win the prime-time battle. 
The two agreements on peace and tranquility on the Line of Actual Control could not prevent DBO. Neither party can guarantee that a future stand-off will not come to blows. There is even the argument that the agreements were to buy India time to get out of tight spot the nineties brought on by the budget squeeze and Kashmir. Having broken out now it can take on China. However, it overlooks China's advantages. The Kargil War in which small scale mountain warfare was witnessed made clear that the investment to offset these advantages is prohibitive in light of competing priorities. Besides, the ugly nationalism that such border incidents ignite hardly helps for sobriety in politics or in reacting.
Therefore, the alternative option of public education must be worked towards, perhaps beginning with inclusion in a party's manifesto for the forthcoming elections. Since both leading parties have a sense of ownership of the policy as it is now two decades old, finding a promise for such a shift in theirs may be difficult, but not impossible. Both had bought into a policy that eventually envisages barter. Only, the timing of this needs being advanced by half a decade to the very next term of government, whichever party wins. They will be surprised to find that the public will unlikely begrudge either, enabling India to get out of the Nehruvian bind with bipartisan backing. 
(The author is a blogger at Think South Asia

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