The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Will the Galwan Valley Clash Influence India’s Domestic Politics?

If Bihar is any indication, India’s political scene will not be affected by the recent tensions with China.

Krzysztof Iwanek
Will the Galwan Valley Clash Influence India’s Domestic Politics?

Indian army soldiers carry the coffin of their colleague Sunil Kumar, killed during confrontation with Chinese soldiers in the Ladakh region, as the body was brought to Jai Prakash Narayan airport, in Patna, Bihar state, India, Wednesday, June 17, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Aftab Alam Siddiqui)

Four days after the bloody skirmishes between China and India that transpired deep within the Himalayas, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a special employment scheme. Modi has used this opportunity to speak of the valor of the Bihar Regiment – “every Bihari was proud of it,” he declared.

It was natural for the prime minister to refer to soldiers who had died just four days earlier in the Galwan Valley. That he focused on the Biharis is also unsurprising, but this particular mention could have had an another, political, dimension. Many of the Indian soldiers that took part in June 15th clash – a fierce battle without gunfire – belonged to the Bihar Regiment that Modi mentioned. This by no means restricted the casualties to one state: Of the 20 Indian soldiers whose deaths were confirmed, 11 belonged to the Bihar Regiment, of which five came from Bihar itself (as the recruitment of the Bihar Regiment is not restricted to that state). This still made Bihar one of the most affected states in terms of lives lost (and lives of Indian soldiers had not been lost in tensions with China for decades before this summer). It also so happens that the populous Bihar state is to go through a legislative assembly election later this year (the polls are due October).

And yet the tensions seem to feature little in the state’s political debates. The state is ruled (in coalition) by the same party that rules all of India – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – and thus the tensions with China should have been a good chance for the opposition to lash out against the governing party, both at the national level and in Bihar, specifically. This happened much more on the first level than on the second, however.

For instance, as pointed out by Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan for The Diplomat, in the wake of the clash the government of Bihar “cancelled a deal for the construction of a new mega bridge because two out of the four contractors had Chinese partners.” Certain politicians from Bihar and elsewhere also promised to financially support the families of the deceased Bihari soldiers. The latter is hardly surprising, however – it is normal for Indian politicians to announce such assistance. In comparison, the decision of the Bihar government is new: This and other decisions taken by the central government may suggest that in its relations with China, India will now start connecting political issues to economic ones, avenging tensions through the economy. But this does not have to indicate that the government of Bihar took this step because it was hard-pressed by the opposition to show some action.

Tejashvi Yadav, one of the leaders of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Bihar’s main opposition party at present, referred to the clash two days after it happened. So did his brother and another key party leader, Tej Pratap Yadav. Soon after, when their party was omitted from a national all-party meeting arranged by Modi to address the tensions, both of the Yadav brothers questioned this omission as well. During the last two months, Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders did take to rallies with certain demands, but these related to the state’s internal situation, not tensions with China. Other leaders of opposition parties, such as Upendra Kushwaha of the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, also called for the government to take “strong action” against China, but these were one-time verbal declarations, not focused, long-lasting and noticeable campaigns.

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That, admittedly, was not much, and these voices of opposition leaders were mostly raised within a few days of the Galwan Valley clash. Still, at the time of writing, weeks after the clash, tensions appear to be unfinished; their embers are smoldering rather than burning. The soldiers have not withdrawn from all of the hot spots, although no further clashes have been reported. Yet the political discourse in Bihar has moved far away from the Himalayas, to focus nearly exclusively on local domestic issues, such as floods in some of the state’s regions, petrol prices, and the way the government is dealing with the pandemic.

It must be noted that Indian state elections have their own dynamics and characteristics, different from the national elections. And, of course, on the national level various politicians – and other people opposed to the BJP government – did criticize it for the way it handled the Himalayan crisis in the past few weeks. Rahul Gandhi – who is and is not the leader of the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress – even had a talk recorded to question Modi’s China policy.

On national level, major security issues do play a large role in the political discourse, and may even affect the elections in some ways. That might have happened in 2019, when the Indian national elections were held not long after a crisis with Pakistan. That time, however, the political outcome was positive for the ruling party: The BJP government undertook a bold, risky but highly popular strike against Pakistan (which is now in stark contrast to its reaction to the recent crisis with China). It remains uncertain how much that particular national security issue affected the subsequent general elections, but it certainly boosted the BJP’s popularity rather than diminished it.

This time, however, there are no national elections around the corner in India (the next are to be held in 2024). For now, there is also no way to assess whether the further repercussions of the recent tensions will affect these elections once they do begin. Thus, the nearest legislative assembly elections in more populous states (like Bihar) are one of the few, if very limited, ways by which the public mood on this matter can be measured. The Galwan Valley clash does not have the power to define the result of the election, but the real question is in how much it appears as a debated topic. The opposition politicians in the state could have made it a much bigger issue if they felt it would have given them additional leverage against the ruling parties.

It is thus noted that while the tensions are still not over, and despite the fact that Bihar has a special, tragic connection to this crisis and is at the same time close to an  election, this subject is already next to marginal in the political discourse. Thus, if Bihar is any indication, India’s political scene will not be affected by the recent tensions with China.