The recent face-off between the armed forces of India and China in the Sikkim area has again raised tensions between the two countries. This is not the first time, and in all probability, it will neither be the last, when disputes related to one or more areas along the more than 3000 km long border between the two nations have brought them at loggerheads.
In fact, issues directly related to the border, which is still not clearly demarcated, led to a war between the two in 1962. It was a brief yet damaging war for India which caused the loss of life of its soldiers and also had a major demoralising effect on the government and the people of the country.
No matter what stand the government of India, under various parties, has maintained since then, the general consensus, away from the nationalistic fervour, is that the blame for the conflict lay mostly on the door of India's handling of the problem.
Specifically on the role of and decisions taken by, the then government under the leadership of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. It is generally believed that it was due to a complete mishandling of the relationship between the two countries by Nehru on multiple fronts.
And the similarities of the causes of the conflict between the neighbours that still exist should make sure that the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, does not repeat the mistakes of the first.
Nehru's mishandling of China
The benefit of hindsight for all observers of the war of 1962 has allowed them to explain the causes behind it and lay the blame clearly on Nehru. The same advantage has also existed for all prime ministers since, as it does for Modi.
Like now, then too, it was a dispute related to the border that led to the conflict. The failures, on the part of Nehru and his government, were not only on just the one issue of the border, they were also related to those of diplomatic manoeuvring and strategy that was adopted in terms of China.
Firstly, the Nehru government went on an all out blitz of committing its wholehearted support for the new Communist Chinese government at the time- though it was the complete opposite of the new democratic India and ignoring controversies related the border that already existed- through clear and visible support for it at the international forums such as the United Nations etc. This was accompanied by the close relations between Nehru and his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai. Enlai had even visited India four times in the period of 1954 to 1957.
Though Nehru's overly friendly zeal towards the Chinese might not necessarily be considered gravely problematic, the about turn on this once the border issues started to raise their heads which came up due to historical claims by both sides for common territories and India's unilateral changing of various maps that had existed then and had been the base of diplomatic measures and discussions to solve the issue, can surely be
These led to a relationship, which for a brief period witnessed mutual cooperation at the international level and was hoped to continue in a way best described by "Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai," to a state of war.
The Congress government instructed the Army to build posts along the border, which was not, like today, clearly demarcated, and led to claims and counter claims by both countries of their territorial sovereignty being compromised.
Such an aggressive approach by Nehru, which has been termed as the 'forward policy' was a drastic change from his initial stand. This change along with other teething problems, which still exist today, on the topics such as Tibet and the political asylum granted to the Dalai Lama by India quickly pushed both nations into a military conflict.
While it would be difficult to ascertain the reasons behind Nehru's volte-face, the conditions similar to current times have been pointed to as possible causes. These include attempts to pacify the growing unrest and criticism, related to what was termed as China's aggressive approach, in Parliament, by the media and among the general public. As well as wrong advice from those close to him.
Even if Nehru's handling of the situation cannot be considered the sole reason behind the war, with the strategy of China also a cause, the point that his better handling of the situation would have minimised the losses in the war or even stopped it from ever taking place cannot be ignored.
Modi needs to learn from Nehru's mistakes
Modi and the current BJP regime at the centre would do well to learn from Nehru's mistakes and ensure they are not repeated, since most of the issue that existed then, still do. The hope being that the situation would be handled better than how it was by the Indian government back then.
Nehru's approach towards the Chinese Premier was not much different from that of Modi towards Chinese President Xi Jinping. Such a common approach between the first and the current Indian prime ministers lies in their overall form of diplomacy of reaching out to foreign leaders to build relations between the countries.
This approach by Modi, in all honesty, could be considered reasonable and logical given the growing importance of both countries not only to each other but also the world. Care though must be taken that it does not come at the cost of ignoring crucial missteps from the other side which could be to the detriment of India.
Though this would ensure not repeating Nehru's first mistake, it would be even more important to not follow in his footsteps when it comes to his shift in strategy to an extremely aggressive one. The current statements seem to point towards the aggressive rhetoric still being followed when it comes to border tensions with China.
With the Army's of India and China again entering into a conflict at the tri-junction between the two and Bhutan, since June 6th of this year, a lot of aggression has been vented from both sides.
The current Indian Defense Minister, Arun Jaitley, was quick to remind the Chinese that India of today was not the same as that of 1962. The Chinese side responded by reminding India that neither was China. Earlier statements by Indian Army Chief of the country being prepared for a two and half front war, clearly pointing to Pakistan and China, also drew sharp criticism from the opposite side.
Barbs continue to fly between the countries almost on a daily basis between the countries since the current controversy began. Which seems to be aimed at, like during the Nehru regime, pleasing the domestic audience.
The Modi-government would do well to remember how what could be considered a scuffle at the border and some ill-advised steps from India, were allowed to get out of hand and turn into a war in Nehru's reign. Especially since in the present scenario, both nations with high stakes on the line, not only economic but also geopolitical among others, cannot afford a war.
Modi's biggest challenge yet
Prime Minister Modi has till now, at least in terms of domestic politics, shown that he is able to learn from the mistakes of his predecessors and opponents. And it would not be too difficult to believe that he would do the same when it comes to China.
The details of the problem at the border between the two nations this time are different from those under Nehru. Issues related to the northern sector of Jammu and Kashmir and in the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA, now known as Arunachal Pradesh) had led to the war. The current tensions come in the middle sector along the state of Sikkim, where China has accused Indian troops of crossing over to its side in the Dokalam sector and India has defended its action based on its relationship with Bhutan.
The overall problem of handling of the situation seems to be quite similar to earlier. It is here that Modi's biggest and trickiest challenge yet in terms of foreign policy lie. Many would argue that such a standing should be reserved for Pakistan, the truth is while Pakistan issue might be in the spotlight far more often given the circumstances prevalent in Kashmir. It is China, with the nature of the border it has with India and their standing in the world, along with the trade between the two, the history of their relationship, etc., that clearly outweighs any other major challenge.
Particularly since India can use its military strength to tackle Pakistan, when it comes to China it cannot do the same. As this might make matters go out of hand and lead to a war that no one, including the rest of the world, can afford. Modi like Nehru cannot refuse to acknowledge the reality of India's military preparedness for a battle with China.
Nehru's tenure and legacy were tarnished due to the defeat to China, and India's relation with the country has been one of the most difficult problems faced by prime ministers since. The reality that the two countries have come closer, particularly in the last decade or so, with continuous and growing dependence on each other has just made an already difficult situation even more so.
This has made the task Modi is faced with less than enviable and how he handles it could well define the success or failure of his foreign policy, as it did Nehru's.
He would do well not to let the compulsions of satisfying the domestic arena come in the way of finding a resolution to the present crisis, which in terms of the geopolitical reality would neither be winning a war or losing it, but only the maintenance of peace followed by a concrete effort to be able to demarcate the entire border.