Modi Sees in China An Opportunity, With Challenges, Not An Enemy


SCEPTICISM has been expressed in some quarters about the Narendra Modi government's China policy in the backdrop of the “informal” Wuhan summit with President Xi Jinping. Congress party has charged that the Wuhan summit happened in the shadow of reports that Chinese construction activities continue unabated on their side of Doklam. Doubts have ranged from lack of specifics to outright capitulation in Prime Minister flying down to China at a short notice. The reported MEA circular asking top government functionaries to stay away from Tibet Day celebrations had also played some role in fuelling the speculation.

Can one attempt to read Modi's mind? Apart from his four visits as PM, Modi has been to China four more times as Chief Minister of Gujarat, memories of one of which – to the Three Gorges Dam – he shared with Xi in Wuhan. The number of visits by themselves should be proof that Modi sees in China an opportunity, not an enemy. It could be safely said that as a leader, Modi is fascinated with some aspects of Chinese achievements which he thinks can provide solutions to many developmental issues facing India. One of the many acronyms he coined in those days – SSS for Speed, Scale, and Skill – has a clear Chinese ring to it. I remember every time he would return to Gandhinagar from his China visit, he would ask his bureaucrats to hold a press conference about the takeaways and what all could get replicated in Gujarat.

Should it mean, as sceptics believe, that Modi might be overlooking the threat from China in focussing on the opportunity part of the relationship? Far from it. As India's actions in Doklam proved, when push comes to shove, the Modi administration is not found wanting. Or for that matter, the surgical strikes against Pakistan post the Uri terror attack underscored the need based muscularity that his government could show. On trade for example, after the United States, India has lodged highest number of complaints with the WTO against China.

But conflicts, both of trade and military kinds, have opportunity costs that tap into national resources. There comes a time in the history of nations, as indeed in lives of individuals, when one digression can swing the destiny between success and defeat. Imagine if Abraham Lincoln had not moderated the radical Republicans to get the South into the Union kickstarting the Reconstruction. The four decades between Reconstruction and Progressive eras were of intense churn in the United States aimed at reforming and transforming the society on a solid bedrock of industrialization and development without getting involved with the outside world. It was due to this national consolidation that by the time of WW-I, a single private American financial institution – the House of Morgans – was bankrolling the war effort of British and French governments combined. Reconciliation was one of the three pillars of the Progressive thought.

Roughly the same time as that of Reconstruction Era in the United States, Japan hit the road to Meiji Restoration opening up to the world for learning, shutting out all conflict, and fully focus on uplift of the national mass under the Emperor. The trigger might have been Japanese awe of the advanced American warships under Commodore Matthew Perry in 1865, but the Meiji period over next four decades underscored a nation's collective will to dream of a progressive future, which Japan continues to live in some ways even a century later.

China took a similar route under Deng Xiaoping, his pragmatism encapsulated in his dictum “hide your ambitions and disguise your claws.” Chinese detente with the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and its subsequent rise over last four decades is recent history. Behind the self-assured brazenness of today's China is that period of focussing all energies on developing economically and not concern itself much with the world. The rise of China is a reality with which the whole world from America to Africa to Europe is struggling to grapple in its own ways. In case of India there's the added burden of a shared and disputed border.

At the development stage India is in, we need to keep our heads low and focus on the job of nation building brick by brick. Much like Japan, America, or China did in their restoration and reconstruction. Seen against this backdrop, contrary to a motivated perception about a perpetual 56-inch bravado, Modi has shown a streak of realism that should put him in line with a Deng. In readily agreeing to fly down to Wuhan, Modi might have only borrowed a leaf out of the Chinese book. It only helps that in an election year avoiding a stand-off with China might have electoral premium attached too.

IS IT TIME TO GET THE UNIFORM CIVIL CODE DEBATE GOING?

IT would be denied. It would be contested. No one in government would admit it on record. But make no mistake. The debate engendered by the triple talaq law leads us only in one direction - a Uniform Civil Code (UCC). The contradictions in the positions taken by the opponents of the bill cutting across the political divide explain the thesis. Let me show how.
The Congress that confidently weakened the Supreme Court verdict to deny maintenance to Shah Bano in 1986 is now agitated that the triple talaq bill denies maintenance to Muslim women! While the official position of Congress party as stated by Ranjit Surjewala supported the law, with some caveats, leaders like Salman Khurshid dumped it outright. Khurshid had incidentally drafted the 1986 law for Rajiv Gandhi.
What explains the Congress ambivalence? For one, BJP ruling at the centre underscores that Hindu consolidation too can bring you to power. Congress’ Antony doctrine that was in full display recently in Gujarat made sure that the grand old party could not be seen to be taking a position against the majority narrative. At the same time, by remaining noncommittal to the minority sentiment it risks further alienating a traditional vote bank. The giveaway came at the time of voting on the bill when Congress refused to support amendments moved by Asaduddin Owaisi.
The AIMIM chief, who fancies himself as the sole Muslim spokesperson in present day politics, strongly championed the cause of Muslim ulema. But imagine what he did: In his intervention to oppose introduction of the bill, Owaisi strongly batted for Section 125 of CrPC, exactly the provision that was opposed by Muslim orthodoxy in Shah Bano case! Clearly shows the distance the nation has travelled between Shah Bano and Shayra Bano.
If you read between the lines, Congress showing nerves over minority appeasement, and Owaisi’s taking refuge under secular provisions of law like the IPC, and seeking protection under articles 14 and 25 of the Constitution, and not the Shariat Act 1937, shows how fertile the ground has become to bring debate on UCC out of the cold storage. Such is the force of public perception this time that even the most conservative elements within the Muslim community have not dared take a pro-triple talaq stand, only objected to State meddling in the domain of religion.
The day of the SC verdict outlawing triple talaq we had broken a story from the studios that the government would bring in a law to give statutory protection to the ruling. The minority view in the SC had actually wanted it to be left to the parliament to decide on the issue. While, the two minority judges might have reflected uncomfortable memories of the summer of 1986 in their caution, a politician as sharp as Narendra Modi grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Going by the discomfiture of Congress party, Modi might have achieved more than a couple of targets. While keeping the agenda setting initiative in his hands, he would have added an incremental vote of Muslim women for 2019, and most significantly, fired up his core constituency with dangling a possibility of that RSS utopia – the UCC.

PS: After our triple talaq law newsbreak, some editors called to question my understanding of law with the argument that SC verdicts become law of the land and do not need an enabling legislation. I responded by saying that while they could question my understanding of law (despite a law degree!), but not my grasp of the BJP led by Narendra Modi. What say?