It took three Prime Ministers to demolish Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s commendable work on border management against China. In 1980, she ordered Operation Falcon under the then army chief, General K.V. Krishna Rao that envisaged heavy deployment in a 15-year step-by-step approach in which forward build-up would keep pace with infrastructure development along with viable lines of communication for operational logistics. This preparation came in good stead during the 1986 Somdorong Chu crisis when the PLA blinked to diffuse the 10-month troops’ build-up by both sides paving the way for the 1988 successful visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China. The long handshake between Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping showed that both leaders stood equally tall. On return, Rajiv Gandhi ordered Operation Falcon to be put on hold to demonstrate India’s desire for peace with China. Deng, however, did just the opposite. Having lagged behind India in border management, he instructed the PLA to prepare for a border war with India.
If what Rajiv Gandhi did was a mistake, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao committed two blunders: he ordered abandonment of Operation Falcon as a goodwill gesture to make his 1993 visit to China a success.
Worse, he signed the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (BPTA) that is directly responsible for increased PLA incursions into India. It was now left to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to further damage India’s case against China. During his September 2003 visit to Beijing, Vajpayee formally acknowledged Tibet to be a part of China with nothing substantive in return. Moreover, with the setting up of Special Representatives to resolve the border dispute, the China Study Group (CSG) created by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 was demoted further. The inter-ministerial CSG comprising secretaries of ministries involved in border security and the vice-chief of army staff was created to both monitor border management and review progress on border resolution talks with China. The CSG was meant to feel the ground pulse and not just make recommendations sitting in New Delhi, precisely what it does now. As no Prime Minister gave much credence to the CSG, the Patrolling Limit Policy (PLP) has not been reviewed since its formulation in 1975, and this is responsible for the humiliation that Indian security forces now face on account of PLA’s aggressive patrolling (read intrusions). For example, when the army chief, General Deepak Kapoor recently told the media that intrusions occur on both sides as both sides patrol to their perception of the LAC, he was merely trying to underplay the abdication of political level responsibility. The intrusions are one-way only, as New Delhi has not revised the PLP to allow Indian forces anywhere close to the LAC. To fully comprehend how much India’s border management is in shambles, there is a need to understand the 1993 BPTA and the 1975 PLP better.