The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

When Did India’s BJP Lose Its Hawkishness on China?

To diplomatically stand up to China, all the BJP needs is to do is to revive some of its past rhetoric.

Krzysztof Iwanek
When Did India’s BJP Lose Its Hawkishness on China?

In this October 10, 2019 file photo, an Indian schoolgirl wears a face mask of Chinese President Xi Jinping to welcome him on the eve of his visit in Chennai, India.

Credit: AP Photo/R. Parthibhan, File

Relations with China during the last few years of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule in India cannot be easily summarized. Wildly divergent events make simple summarization impossible: ranging from New Delhi joining the China-founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to rejecting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP); from Modi’s “informal summits” with Xi Jinping to the tensions at Doklam and in Ladakh. The tensions of 2020 in particular lead many commentators to believe that a further deterioration of Sino-Indian ties is inevitable. This will put both Beijing’s attitude toward India, as well as the BJP’s approach to managing ties with China, in the spotlight.

So far, save for the aftermath of the Ladakh clashes, India’s ruling party has remained rather careful in verbally – or even practically – clashing with China. But if history is of any use here, the Hindu nationalist organizations from which the BJP derives itself have a long “tradition” of China-bashing; one they can now perhaps revive.

The BJP’s earlier avatar, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), was one of the most hawkish Indian parties when it came to New Delhi’s China policy. In the 1950s, when Beijing annexed Tibet, the Indian government, then led by the Indian National Congress, gave the Dalai Lama and his court shelter in its territory but also recognized the annexed country as part of China. This proved to be a fateful decision New Delhi never backtracked from, even after its relations with Beijing started to rapidly deteriorate in 1959 due to the border dispute, and even after the Sino-Indian 1962 war, in which India suffered a humiliating defeat. The BJS, an opposition party at the time, called for the withdrawal of India’s recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet – and hence a re-recognition of Tibet’s independence. The party did so in one of its 1960 resolutions, two years before the war. Not only that, but the party also wanted to raise the cause of Tibet in the United Nations (it called for it in 1959) and to recognize the Dalai Lama’s émigré court as a de jure government of Tibet (the party raised this matter also in 1962 and again in its 1967 election manifesto).

This hawkish attitude was retained throughout the 1960s and much of 1970s, and in part touched on issues far beyond the Tibetan plateau. Another BJS manifestos, published no later than 1973, called both China and Pakistan India’s “natural enemies” who had seized territories that needed “liberation.” The same document said “all countries which subscribe to peace and co-existence should be sought to counteract Red China’s expansionist and militaristic policies,” a suggestion that rings a bell in 2021. But the manifesto did not stop there. In a move that was not just rattling the saber, but more like raising it high, the BJS declared that stopping the above-mentioned military expansion of China required not only the “liberation of Tibet” but also “Sinkiang and both Mongolias,” as well as “recognition of Formosa Government.” (Editor’s note: Sinkiang is an alternative romanization of Xinjiang and “Formosa” refers to Taiwan.) The call to recognize Taiwan also appeared in the party’s 1967 manifesto. Read in 2021, such demands sound nothing short of amazing, given that most people, including even China’s rivals, have long ago abandoned such causes as the independence of Inner Mongolia.

A shift in Hindu nationalist rhetoric on China occurred by the 1980s, however. The 1989 election manifesto of the BJS’ later incarnation, the BJP, was strikingly different in its suggested policy toward Beijing. “We stand for a normalization of relations with China, with due safeguards for Tibet, proper recognition of India’s natural interests and honorable solutions of the border dispute,” the document read. This was not just a massive scaling down from earlier calls for Tibet’s independence but the manifesto also included no words on the status of Taiwan, Inner Mongolia, or Xinjiang.

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A similar duality pervaded the party’s later official documents. Tibet, Taiwan, Inner Mongolia, or Xinjiang no longer appeared as territories which the party would like to see liberated from China’s control, but the border dispute between New Delhi and Beijing was highlighted as the most significant irritant in their relations (the other being China’s arms export to Pakistan). In a nutshell, the BJP gave up on its support to any people whose lands were occupied by China, but not on India’s own border claims against Beijing. 

The duality of approach was also manifest in the party’s rhetorical calls (and real attempts) to normalize ties with China, coupled with its apparent concern for China’s growing military clout. The 1991 election manifesto reminded readers that “Pakistan and China continue to occupy territories lawfully ours” and that “thousands of Tibetans continue to live in India as refugees” but there was no suggestion of how to solve these problems. The party’s national executive proceedings of 1995 justified India’s nuclear weapons program as necessary not just because of Pakistan’s activities, but also due to the nuclear threat arising from China and the fact that Beijing was sharing its arsenal with Islamabad. And while the same document also stressed that the Chinese kept occupying parts of Ladakh, the next year, in 1996, the party declared in its manifesto that “our relations with the People’s Republic of China offer an opportunity to now put them on a footing of friendship and cooperation. For this we need to resolve the border question in a fair and equitable manner.” 

The party’s tone grew even more moderate over the next few years. In the 1998 manifesto, the party promised to “improve relations with China by seeking speedy resolution of the outstanding border problem,” although it did not miss the chance to remind readers of China’s arms exports to Pakistan. The 1999 election manifesto of the National Democratic Alliance, a coalition formed and led by the BJP, did not mention China at all. The next, published in 2004, promised to “expand our economic cooperation with China” and “continue the dialogue with China to achieve a mutually satisfactory resolution” of the boundary dispute. The 2014 manifesto did not mention China either, though it spoke of strengthening borders and border infrastructure in general terms. The BJP’s 2019 manifesto also put stress on border security but China was explicitly mentioned only in the context of “strengthening cooperation in the India-Russia-China triangle.” 

It therefore seems that should the BJP aim to build a more hawkish attitude toward Beijing as a consequence of the 2020 clashes, all it would need to do is to revive but a half of its historical anti-China rhetoric.

There are three caveats to this conclusion, however. First, the exact moment in time when the Hindu nationalists’ China policy took its visible turn is yet unknown to me. I would assume, however, that this transformation had a lot to do with the first experiences of being responsible for the country’s foreign policy. In 1977, the BJS merged into the Janata Party and went on to become a part of a ruling coalition for the first time. Former BJS members were the biggest faction in the new party and one of the Hindu nationalist leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, became foreign minister. But during that short-lived coalition rule New Delhi displayed a remarkably balanced foreign policy: striving to retain India’s special relationship with Russia while extending a friendly hand to both the West and China. To add to this, when the Hindu nationalists returned with a coalition government after a long hiatus at the end of 1990s, the same Vajpayee, now as India’s prime minister, tried in earnest to reach some kind of a settlement with China. 

This would suggest that the party’s radical reduction in anti-China rhetoric was connected to the pragmatic process of experiencing governance. Hindu nationalists were only keen to liberate large swaths of China when their party had no possibility of proceeding with such plans: For a long time, their party had a small representation that continuously sat in the opposition benches. Once they came to power, its politicians probably came to the conclusion that such rhetoric was irresponsible or even dangerous. This may, at least partially, explain the evolution behind BJP’s stance today.

Second, I am only considering the possibility of bringing back certain rhetoric. Words from the past are more easily revived than strategies. Various factors, especially technological changes, quickly make older policies redundant. Thus, while the Hindu nationalists could take up certain themes from their past, these, by themselves, will not be helpful in solving new challenges, such as the question of Chinese companies’ involvement in Indian telecommunication networks. 

Third and finally, one can perhaps counter what I wrote in this text by pointing out that these are all just words, and words can always be changed. After all, politicians and parties are known to change their stances. Among various scenarios of the future, one cannot rule out one in which the BJP and the Indian National Congress swap places somehow, with the former advocating moderation on China, and the latter calling for stronger actions. In the case that words can be changed to any other words, tracing the course of historical rhetoric would matter little.

To counter such a point, I would claim that while politicians indeed often change their narrative, they do not operate in a void: Their electorate and their party members take notice and react. The BJP’s leaders must similarly consider both international ramifications as well as the mood of their domestic base – and their main organization (the RSS), and its core electorate, were never fond of China’s foreign policy and always aired concern about Chinese actions toward India. As I have shown in a previous text for The Diplomat, the first reactions of Hindu nationalists (the media of the RSS, not the party leadership) to the Galwan river valley clash were very strong. At this moment, certain ideas from the past, such as derecognizing China’s sovereignty over Tibet, were mentioned, although only in some opinion pieces (not in official statements) and not as strongly and widely as in 1960s. The narrative on China within Hindu nationalist circles is thus a certain continuum, albeit a changing one, and it cannot ruled out that the BJP will indeed revive a part of its past rhetoric.