Modi’s alarming aversion to parliamentary scrutiny over the border crisis in Ladakh

Over two years after the deadly clash in the Galwan Valley, India remains incapable of reversing the Chinese incursion into Ladakh.
19 June, 2022

As we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the current border crisis in Ladakh has been raging for over two years. Over sixty thousand soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army and an equivalent number from the Indian side are deployed against each other. Last week marked the second anniversary of the deadly clash in the Galwan Valley, on 15 and 16 June 2020, in which 20 Indian soldiers and at least four PLA soldiers died. Scores of Indian soldiers were badly injured, with around seventy of them being taken captive by the PLA—some soldiers spent three days in Chinese custody.

Ten rounds of diplomatic talks and 15 rounds of military talks have led to limited disengagement in a few areas but created a new status quo. India remains incapable of reversing the Chinese incursion into Ladakh and is content to hold the line and prevent further loss of control over territory. The Narendra Modi government no longer asserts that its goal is to restore the situation in Ladakh as of April 2020. At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, organised in Singapore by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, said that the Chinese government had continued to “harden its position” on the Indian border. Three days earlier, General Charles Flynn, who heads the US Army’s Pacific command, had noted, during a visit to India, that Chinese activity in the region was “eye-opening.” Flynn described the PLA’s new infrastructure near the border as “alarming.” Even though it is not comparable to the 1962 conflict, there is little doubt that this is the biggest military crisis India has faced since the 1999 Kargil War.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Chinese defence minister, General Wei Fenghe, argued that the responsibility for the border conflict does not lie with China. Wei claimed that he had communicated this position to his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh. The Indian representative at the forum, Vice-Admiral Biswajit Dasgupta, who heads the Eastern Naval Command, did not push back against this assertion. While responding to a question about maritime security, he remarked that the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, for anti-piracy operations near the Gulf of Aden, does not pose a major challenge to the Indian Navy.

The Modi government’s timidity in confronting Beijing is worrying. Even more alarming is its refusal to accept in public the gravity of the border crisis—instead, it has responded with a mix of distraction, denial and obfuscation. In 1962, when the situation was far more sensitive and grave, the Jawaharlal Nehru government’s response was open and democratic.

The war began on 20 October 1962. Six days later, the Nehru government declared a national emergency. The future prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a freshly elected Rajya Sabha MP from the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. He led a four-member delegation that met Nehru and demanded an immediate parliamentary session to discuss the war. Nehru agreed, despite the two-thirds majority his party enjoyed in parliament. The decision was in keeping with his commitment to democratic norms. Between August 1961 and December 1962, he made 32 statements on China in parliament, speaking over a hundred thousand words on the border conflict. He issued white papers and informed MPs of the developments at the earliest opportunity, conforming to established parliamentary customs. Under Nehru, the majesty of parliament—which Modi wants to convert into a “museum of democracy”—was supreme; his government had no secrets from the legislature.

On 3 May 1962, Nehru told the Rajya Sabha that, around twenty months earlier, he had discussed the border crisis with the president of Pakistan, Ayub Khan. “I showed them our confidential maps as to where we thought the Chinese were and where we were, and asked what position of the Chinese was on their side of the border,” he said. The day after he revealed these secret talks, the Chinese government announced that it would hold negotiations with Pakistan to settle their border dispute. “Whatever our differences were on Kashmir, I thought it would be advantageous to have a uniform policy with regard to the Chinese aggression,” Nehru said during a Rajya Sabha debate on 22 August. “It is very surprising that Pakistan, which is a champion standard-bearer against communism, should now try to club with China.”

Both houses of parliament were convened on 8 November. Even as the PLA continued to inflict defeats on Indian forces, a fierce debate took place in the capital. LM Singhvi, an independent MP who would join the BJP three decades later, requested that it should be a secret session, as they were discussing a sensitive matter. Nehru declined, arguing that the issues before parliament were of “high interest to the whole country.” By contrast, the Modi government has described the current crisis as sensitive and has refused to share details with parliament. BJP leaders have argued that those asking questions in parliament about the border crisis are against the armed forces. Faced with demands from the opposition to hold a debate, the Modi government implied that discussing the issue in parliament would send out the message that the country is not united and standing behind the soldiers fighting Chinese infiltration. Even Vajpayee, whom many believe to be a committed democrat like Nehru, refused to allow a debate in parliament during the Kargil War.

A hundred and sixty-five MPs spoke during the Lok Sabha debate, held between 12 and 14 November. Members of the ruling party and the opposition asked tough questions about the lack of military preparation and received detailed answers—often from Nehru, who was present in the house throughout the debate. Nehru himself was not spared. He repeatedly assured MPs that he would place every scrap of paper on the border issue before parliament. The Modi government, meanwhile, has limited itself to a couple of statements, with limited information, that were read out by the defence minister as monologues, with no further discussion. The speaker of the Lok Sabha has been disallowing questions on the subject. That is par for the course in a house that has not even elected a deputy speaker—who, by convention, comes from the opposition—in the past three years. Modi, who is rarely present in parliament, has also refused to face journalists in an open press conference; the only questions he ever faces are in pantomime television interviews with the likes of the actor Akshay Kumar.

There is an argument that parliamentary debates tie the hands of the government, reducing their freedom of action in matters of foreign policy that are best freed from the public pressure of democracy. In his book Twilight in China, KPS Menon, the first foreign secretary of independent India, wrote that “Nehru seemed personally disposed to negotiate on the frontier problem, but he gave up the idea and assumed an inflexible posture as a result of the opposition of some of his colleagues in the cabinet and criticism in Parliament. The entire attitude adopted by Parliament during the crisis was unhelpful.” Rhetorical statements about not surrendering even an inch of Indian territory, he added, had left the government with no room to manoeuvre.

A fitting answer to Menon’s argument came from Nehru himself during the parliamentary debate. When PK Deo, a Swatantra Party MP, sought an assurance that there would not be any more talks with the Chinese until they ended their aggression, Nehru replied, “I want freedom of action. I say, first of all, that nothing can happen without this house being informed. Secondly, we should agree that nothing should be done which, in the slightest degree, sullies the honour of India. For the rest, I want a free hand.”

A prime minister needs to have the conviction to clearly communicate this sense of responsibility and accountability to parliament. After all, between elections, the government is accountable to the public through the legislature—MPs are seen as embodying the will of the people. If parliament is kept in the dark, then the people are being kept in the dark, which is the antithesis of democracy. This was precisely the warning the Swatantra Party leader C Rajagopalachari gave in a 1962 public meeting in Madras. “Inevitably, in any war, the first casualty would be democracy,” he said. “That should not be allowed.” These words hold much truer six decades later.