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Photo-op gets China’s goat

- Tibetan ‘debut’ at Modi swearing-in
Doordarshan footage shows Sikyong Lobsang Sangay (left), the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile, seated next to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav at Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan on May 26. Picture from the website of the Central Tibetan Administration

New Delhi, June 7: On the eve of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s arrival in New Delhi, the government is struggling to put on the best front to its China policy in the face of a most unlikely source of disruption: the BJP and the Sangh parivar.

Tucked away behind the smiling faces and the handshakes after Wang greets external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj shortly before noon on Sunday, the visitor is expected to deliver a stern message: do not revive the ghost of George Fernandes on Tibet when the NDA’s defence minister briefly derailed Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s China policy 16 years ago.

The Chinese are livid that the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile, known as the Sikyong, Lobsang Sangay, was given pride of place at the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Rashtrapati Bhavan on May 26.

Side by side with congratulatory messages to Modi and others in the new government, China has — through a formal demarche — already objected to Sangay being honoured.

While the Indian government has been discreetly silent, the “Central Tibetan Administration”, the self-styled government-in-exile, said on its website that “this is the first time that political leaders of Central Tibetan Administration made their presence along with other dignitaries in the swearing-in ceremony of the Prime Minister of India”.

It added that the “honourable Sikyong was accompanied by Ms Dolma Gyari, the honourable Kalon for the department of home, Central Tibetan Administration”, the self-styled home minister of the government-in-exile.

Another statement on the website saying Sangay and Gyari attended the swearing-in at the invitation of the BJP was removed this afternoon, possibly under pressure from those who are running for cover in a bid to avoid complications during the visit of Wang, who has been designated a special envoy of President Xi Jinping as a gesture to the new government.

It is clear that the presence of dissident Tibetan leaders at Rashtrapati Bhavan was not an accident and that there is a school of thought in the new ruling establishment that China should be baited by the Modi government, notwithstanding the new Prime Minister’s legacy of extreme cordiality with Beijing.

This is clear from meetings which the Tibetan “home minister”-in-exile held with the RSS and BJP leaders who are closely aligned to the RSS within two days of the Lok Sabha election results even though the victors were in the thick of government formation efforts.

Kalon Dolma Gyari met Bhaiyaji Joshi and Indresh Kumar, both senior leaders of the RSS, and several other leaders who have decade-long relations with the Central Tibetan Administration,” according to a statement from the government-in-exile.

Even more worrying is a claim by the Tibetan exile leadership that “during the meeting they (RSS leaders) reaffirmed its (sic) consistent position with regard to Tibet. In a separate meeting with J.P. Nadda, general secretary of the BJP, he… assured all support and cooperation to the Tibetan people in exile in India.”

After the swearing-in, Sangay was able to make his way to the podium where he posed for a group photograph of South Asian leaders with Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee, among others.

While enquiries about the May 26 event revealed that the Tibetan leaders had managed to get into Rashtrapati Bhavan on a quota for guests that was allotted to the BJP, it is surprising that they were able to squeeze themselves into the photograph of heads of state and government.

That could not have been done without active help to the leaders in exile from people with access, given the high security for Saarc leaders and the Special Protection Group cover for Modi.

The group photograph was tantamount to a deliberate provocation of China because Beijing could interpret it as the new government raising the Tibetan government-in-exile to the status of a state. India has so far said Tibet is part of China.

Aware of this implication, the official group photo that was released did not show Sangay in the line-up. Because he was the last in the line it was possible to crop him out before the picture was officially released.

The Chinese or anyone else might not have noticed the provocation had not the Central Tibetan Administration put the provocative version of the group photo on its website. However, subsequently, the government-in-exile deleted that picture and replaced it with one showing Sangay in the audience at the swearing-in.

The speculation is that the photo was deleted as part of efforts by India to put the best face on Wang’s visit.

While the Chinese are certain to make their case unambiguously against any plan by the new government to patronise the Tibetan government-in-exile, sources said Beijing will also take extreme care to see that the incident does not sour the prospects of good relations with Modi and his ministers.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi

The Chinese case will be that the government-in-exile is a political outfit that violates the terms of the Dalai Lama’s refuge and that there is nothing spiritual about Sangay and his colleagues.

In 1998, when Fernandes publicly said that “China was India’s potential enemy number one”, Beijing had mishandled the outrage it felt over the statement and it took a long time to bring back the bilateral relationship to normal.

Partly, that was also because Vajpayee, in letters to several heads of state, had rationalised that China was a reason for the Pokhran II nuclear tests.

It is understood that the Chinese strategy this time will be to offer economic sweeteners that Modi will find attractive enough not to want to follow any political course on Tibet that will set back Sino-Indian relations.


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