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.”