Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

When a deadly standoff on a disputed stretch of border between India and China resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers (and an unconfirmed number of Chinese casualties), a response from New Delhi seemed inevitable. It is the worst violence to take place between the two countries in nearly half a century—an incident that each side has since faulted the other for. It also comes at a time when the two countries are being led by strongmen who are under immense pressure not to lose face.

In the weeks since, though, no such response has materialized. Despite growing calls in India for a boycott of Chinese goods, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping have focused on downplaying the situation, with the former opting thus far for symbolic retaliatory measures such as the recent ban on dozens of Chinese mobile apps, including WeChat and TikTok. De-escalation is easier for Xi, whose tight grip gives him greater control over the Chinese national narrative; it is less easy for Modi, whose population has begun to view China not only as India’s rival, but as its chief threat. Though recent polling shows that a majority of Indians trust the prime minister to safeguard their national security, they also expect him to take a harsher stance against Beijing. Some people have even taken to destroying Chinese-made products as a form of protest.

Modi’s efforts to reduce tensions while placating his voters expose something of a strongman paradox—one in which the prime minister, whose leadership has projected a hawkish and muscular image, must contend with the reality that India cannot afford a full-scale economic retaliation against China, let alone a military one. They also offer a case study for how nationalist leaders can back down from confrontation while still saving face.

Modi’s tenure as prime minister has largely been defined by hard-line politics reflective of his Hindu nationalist agenda. Though not all of his policies have been uniformly popular—his decisions to revoke the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and impose a religious test on those seeking a path to citizenship from three neighboring countries, for example, generated mass protests—he has nonetheless maintained a broad base of support. Even amid the health and economic uncertainties brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Modi’s approval rating has recently towered as high as 74 percent—a level of popularity that has eluded other nationalist leaders such as Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Vladimir Putin in Russia.

Yet as popular as Modi’s efforts have proved domestically, they haven’t necessarily helped him navigate India’s tense, albeit typically stable, relationship with its largest neighbor. Though India and China have enjoyed 70 years of diplomatic relations, they have also weathered a number of challenges—including a war over their disputed border in 1962 (which China won), their respective relationships with Pakistan (an adversary to New Delhi, but an ally to Beijing), and other long-standing issues such as the status of Kashmir (to which China lays some territorial claim). Last month’s face-off in the Himalayas, in which Indian and Chinese soldiers are believed to have engaged in hours of hand-to-hand combat using crude weapons such as stones and iron rods, occurred within the context of this longer history.

“Popular sentiment in India now is more hostile to China than it’s been in a number of decades,” Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, D.C., told me, noting that “there is a lot of pressure on the Modi government to respond, to retaliate, to avenge the deaths of the 20 soldiers.”

Still, the desire for revenge is dulled by political realities that even a hawkish leader such as Modi can’t ignore. For starters, China’s economy is nearly five times the size of India’s. An economic response could expose New Delhi to retaliation, which could be particularly dire given India’s sizable reliance on Chinese imports, including medical supplies. Militarily, India is largely outmatched. This kind of realpolitik “poses a bit of an inconvenient truth,” Kugelman said, “that, on many levels, the Indian government’s hands are tied.”

For all the limits to Modi’s apparent strength that this border standoff has exposed, though, it has also demonstrated the ways by which nationalist leaders can still attempt to save face, even as domestic pressures grow.

In the days following the clash, for example, Modi claimed in a televised address that no part of Indian territory had been occupied by Chinese soldiers, in contradiction with his own government’s findings and subsequent evidence. “He desperately wanted to de-escalate tensions for the simple reason [that] he recognizes that China has much more significant military capabilities that it can bring to bear against India,” Sumit Ganguly, a distinguished professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington, told me. But it also signaled Modi’s desire to recast the narrative as one not of loss but defiance—one that would ostensibly help appease the nationalist fervor among his ardent supporters, even if his reframing was widely criticized by his political opponents as evidence of his government’s failures.

Recasting the narrative isn’t the only thing that enables nationalist leaders to maintain their hawkish reputations. Modi has also proved the value of symbolic retaliatory steps, such as his ban on 59 Chinese apps, citing national-security concerns. Though banning an app such as TikTok is, on its face, a big deal—more than 200 million people use the video-sharing service in India, roughly a quarter of the app’s users worldwide—it doesn’t impose any economic or technological cost on China (as The Hindu’s Ananth Krishnan noted, TikTok’s profit in India amounted to only a fraction of its parent company’s total revenue last year). It merely gives an impression of retaliation, without the risk of severe Chinese reprisals.

And, symbolic or not, Modi’s tactics appear to be working. In the aftermath of the government’s announcement, a number of users began using the hashtag #ByeTikTok to direct their followers to join them on alternative platforms, such as Instagram and YouTube. Others opted to download Chingari, an Indian alternative to TikTok. “It’s very clear from the reviews … that this is an app with many flaws, and not comparable in the kind of efficiency and general workability as TikTok,” Prerna Singh, the Mahatma Gandhi associate professor of political science and international studies at Brown University, told me. “And yet it has seen a 400 percent increase in the number of downloads in the last few days.”

Modi’s efforts to downplay tensions with China without undermining his own strongman image have been so successful, in part, Singh said, because of the fact that Beijing isn’t India’s traditional foreign adversary, a role occupied by Pakistan. It also helps that, despite growing resentment toward Beijing, Indians are far less familiar with China than they are with Pakistan. “It’s difficult to whip up nationalist fervor because the memories of the ’62 war, except for the generation that lived through it, is kind of a fading memory,” Ganguly said. “It doesn’t have the same visceral quality ... as, say, the relationship with Pakistan … There are limits to how you can play that with China, and Modi, I think, is more than well aware of it.”

But perhaps the greatest driver of Modi’s actions is that for all his strongman bravado, he is well aware of India’s limits, as well as his own. Recasting the narrative or imposing anodyne retaliatory measures allows him to subtly acknowledge those limitations without losing face. “Modi is astute enough to realize that if he fuels a nationalist fervor,” Ganguly said, “he may become trapped by his own rhetoric.”

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