Narendra Modi, the ‘face saver’? Whose face is the question

The Prime Minister confounded the nation last week by declaring that there had been no intrusion in Ladakh, handing over a propaganda coup to the Chinese. Was he trying to save someone’s face?

PM Modi 
PM Modi
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Uttam Sengupta

Almost 72 hours after the Prime Minister’s astounding statement on Friday and 48 hours after the PMO’s clarification, it is still not clear what he meant by saying there had been no intrusion into Indian territory in Ladakh. The clarification claimed that there were attempts at intrusion, which were repulsed by brave Indian soldiers.

But the PM, who contradicted his own foreign minister, defence minister and the army, has not bothered to clear the air so far. This has led to speculation that he aimed at de-escalation because he knows that a military response is not possible. On the other hand, there is also speculation that he is merely buying time before delivering a ‘fitting’ response. There is also speculation that his statement was meant to be a face-saver, but not necessarily his own.

So, whose face did the PM try to save?

1. Saving the face of China & Xi Jin Ping:

Chinese emperors are not known to have gone outside China to fulfil their territorial ambition. They were content to what they had in China. But of late China has acquired the image of a bully and its aggression following the coronavirus pandemic has done little to win new friends. But as Prime Minister Narendra Modi once said—a video clip has been circulating on social media—he and Xi Jin Ping are soulmates. Indeed, Chinese traveller and scholar Hiuen Tsang, who had visited India in the seventh century, is believed to have visited the native villages of both Modi and Xi Jin Ping! It was, therefore, important for Prime Minister Modi to save the face of his friend and soulmate and absolve them of the aggressor tag.

2. Saving the face of the Indian Army:

For the past several years Indian Army Generals have been boasting of their capacity to fight a war on two fronts. But the Modi Government had shelved the Strike Corps which was being raised by the UPA Government. With Indian security forces yet to recover fully from the blow suffered by the terror attack at Pulwama in February last year, and the riddle of how the RDX laden vehicles eluded Intelligence operatives and security check posts unsolved, the ‘murder’ of 20 soldiers in unarmed combat in Ladakh has raised questions about the capabilities and preparedness of the army. By declaring that the army men repulsed attempts at intrusion, he may have thought it would save the face of the army.

3.Saving the face of Indian business:

Indian businessmen have increasingly turned to Chinese investment, goods, raw material and technology. No less than Anil Ambani took loans from a Chinese bank. No less than the Adani group sought and received Chinese technology. And when the Jack Ma foundation offered help by way of masks, PPE and ventilators to European countries but not India, there was great outrage with calls for boycotting Chinese goods. But with the Indian pharmaceutical industry almost totally dependent on raw materials imported from China and the telecom sector staring at a 20% cost escalation if it boycotts Chinese parts, strained relations with China would be detrimental to Indian business. And as he once said, commerce runs in his veins. So, the trader in the Prime Minister must have told him to de-escalate.

4. Saving the face of Chinese investment:

Although only 2% of Chinese trade is with India, Chinese companies would like to invest in India. They have already invested in several Indian companies. Among other states, Gujarat has been in the forefront in wooing Chinese investment. Freezing the pipeline affects both Chinese investors and their Indian partners, who are naturally hit harder. Modi supporters may therefore argue that by giving China a escape route, the Indian Prime Minister is keeping both Chinese investors and Indian enterprises happy.

5. Saving the face of the IT Cell and TV channels: It can also be argued that by claiming there has been no intrusion, the Prime Minister has saved the face of BJP’s IT Cell and the TV channels, who would otherwise have found it difficult to defend the government. So he said what he said to keep their morale high.

6. Saving his own face: The Prime Minister was all fire and brimstone after the IAF’s strike in Balakot last year. To take revenge was in his nature (Badla lena meri fitrat hai), he had declared. He had boasted that he had no patience while dealing with terrorists and enemies. ‘Mai andar ghus ke maarta hoon’ ( I go into enemy’s home turf to settle scores), he had then said. After the clash in Galwan Valley, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed and 10 were held hostage, the Indian Prime Minister would have been expected to roll his sleeves and swear revenge. But by denying any intrusion and loss of territory, he was saving his own face.

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