A cursory read over Chinese media coverage of elections to be held across democracies in 2024, presents a glaring picture of how significant the year is set to be for Beijing’s foreign policy. With over fifty countries expected to undergo elections this year, media houses and foreign policy analysts in China have specifically drawn caution against political changes and even constants that can potentially re-orient their foreign policies towards Beijing. With emphasis on Indian general elections, the opinions and perspectives expressed by different India watchers in China presents an uneven mix of being both perceptive and propagandic; with the latter finding more coverage space than the former.

The ongoing general elections in India, engaging nearly a billion voters over a period of three months, represents the largest and most expensive election in representative democracy’s history. Beyond the media coverage of fellow democratic countries, the Communist Party of China (CPC) is also closely monitoring the electoral process, in a bid to decode the potential trajectory of India-China ties over the next five years. Coverage from China's state-affiliated media outlets and academic circles has varied, ranging from the prediction of a ‘no-suspense’ election (悬念) to criticising Indian political parties for portraying China as the primary adversary. However, an in-depth assessment of opinions and perspectives expressed by different India watchers in China, presents an uneven mix of being both perceptive and propagandic; with the latter finding more coverage space than the former. What are the subtle narratives that have found greater significance within Chinese media and academic discourses regarding the general elections in India?  How is this reporting influencing China’s domestic opinion and perception of India?

Keeping an eye on the ‘China question’ in India’s electoral campaigns

A cursory read over Chinese media coverage of elections to be held across democracies in 2024, presents a glaring picture of how significant the year is set to be for Beijing’s foreign policy. With over fifty countries expected to undergo elections this year, media houses and foreign policy analysts in China have specifically drawn caution against political changes and even constants that can potentially re-orient their foreign policies towards Beijing. These assessments have also called for Beijing to remain prepared in changing its strategic outlook towards countries undergoing elections due to the uncertainty prevalent in democratic set-ups. The warnings have so far attempted to guide the CPC to be ‘vigilant’ given that political parties in India, U.S and Taiwan are explicitly showcasing their will to mitigate against the China challenge.

Gauging against focus regions being covered as part of the ‘election year’ (选年) reporting in Chinese media, India’s upcoming general elections are second only to the US’s presidential election later in the year. The extensive attention to detail by Chinese analysts towards India’s general election can be attributed to the ever-growing tensions between the two countries. Apart from boundary issues that have deteriorated bi-lateral relations, New Delhi’s increasing affinity with Washington, in the Indo-Pacific and other regions of common interest, has compelled Beijing’s strategic establishment to pay closer attention to Indian domestic figures and events that can potentially influence the future of their bilateral relationship.

A common theme in Chinese media’s coverage and its academic discourse on India’s upcoming general elections has been the focus on the ‘China threat’ rhetoric employed by the two major national political parties in India- the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and the opposition party of Indian National Congress (INC). An article published by the Global Times even deemed India’s electoral system as potentially harmful for India-China ties more so due to the rhetorical use of China as a threat and the subsequent political party’s assertion as the only potential government that can solve the China question. The article also took note of the political to and fro between the two national parties by extensively covering the opposition party’s allegation of the government in power, led by BJP, “surrendering” to China in the border regions. An article featured on Sohu, a leading mainstream media platform, also cautioned China's political leadership to stay vigilant, suggesting that 'electoral pressures' could potentially escalate the BJP's border strategy.

From India’s general elections point of view, there has been a notable shift in the discourse surrounding China, marking a subtle yet important departure from previous election campaigns in terms of the rhetoric deployed. Even though the BJP’s election manifesto mentions China only once with regards to border development, The INC’s manifesto deems the Chinese intrusion in Ladakh along with the Galwan clash in 2020, as the ‘biggest setback’ to India’s national security in decades. Furthermore, prominent leaders including the External Affairs Minister and the Defence Minister of India, have regularly retorted to the political narrative of safeguarding Indian territory against Chinese misadventures at the border. On the contrary, Prime Minister Modi has sought to adopt a pacifistic approach by advocating for peaceful border relations with China and characterized the bilateral relationship as 'important and significant'. This good cop-bad cop strategy utilised by the ruling party also illustrates the nature of BJP’s China policy; where both carrots and sticks are used to navigate the complex relationship. Thus, needless to say, the China question has figured greatly in domestic electoral calculations for both the opposition as well as the ruling party.

Apart from these factors influencing Chinese discourse of India’s general elections, state back media outlets have further attempted to propagate the ‘China threat’ perception among Chinese audiences. From a strategic outlook— riding on the preposition that India’s political elites consider China as a rising geopolitical threat, aides Beijing’s aggressive policies towards New Delhi. By propagating the ‘China threat’ narrative domestically, China’s India policy will require little alteration in terms of its aggression on the border and will further continue to remain a justifiable measure from Beijing’s perspective, irrespective of the electoral outcome. Thus, one may expect to see further politicization of the China threat rhetoric, in India as well as in China for domestic gains.

The double-edged sword of ‘Decolonization’ as a Political Narrative

For both India’s domestic elections as well as New Delhi’s endeavours of asserting its importance in the Global South and beyond, decolonization has been interpreted by China’s academia as a crucial strategy that the BJP is deploying to cultivate influence. Qian Feng, a strategic thinker at the National Institute of Strategic Studies at Tsinghua University, emphasized that the concept of "decolonization" as promoted by the Indian Prime Minister has served as a specific political narrative for the BJP and its long-term political ambitions. However, some perspectives prevalent in the Chinese discourse have also gone on to question the growing use of Hindu nationalism as a supplement to the decolonization debate. The extensive promotion of the Ram Temple inauguration coupled with the attention given to the Global South during India’s G20 Presidency is seen as a dual strategy, where domestically the decolonization narrative has aimed to strengthen the roots of Hindu nationalism while internationally it has granted New Delhi with greater significance among the Global South.

In an interview given to The Paper, a Chinese state-backed media agency, Liu Zongyi, the director of the South Asia Studies Center of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, stated that Hindu nationalism, by virtue of the BJP has gradually become the mainstream ideology in Indian society, leading to the opposition party of the INC also tilting towards Hindu-nationalistic sentiments. Furthermore, the tilt toward decolonization and subsequently Hindu nationalism in Indian politics is also underscored to have reflected in the BJP’s foreign policy. Wang Shida, Deputy Director of Institute of South Asian Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), stated in a recent paper that the overall ideological influence of Hindu Nationalism in India’s politics is also visible in the BJP’s foreign policy and inherently poses challenges for India-China ties. Shida claims that by deliberately ‘ideologicalizing’ the contradiction between China and India, the influence of Hindu nationalism in India’s foreign policy seeks to capitalise upon bilateral disputes for domestic purposes, including propping up nationalist sentiments during elections at the expense of China.

Commentaries in Chinese media have also taken stock of the extent of religious polarization prevalent in the leadup to the elections as a result of the Hindu nationalism discourse. These assessments have largely aimed to highlight the inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, as a political strategy meant to consolidate the Hindu voter base. These perspectives, however, have also noted the dual strategy of welfare coupled with advancing Hindu nationalism as a marker of BJP’s successful strategy that has granted it the people’s mandate for almost a decade.

From Chinese Media to Academia- Perspectives on India’s general election

From cautioning the CPC of political changes that can disrupt bilateral relations to shedding light on the extent of political polarization emerging in India’s upcoming elections, foreign policy analysts and media reporters in China are observing the electoral process in India in two distinctive ways. First, within the media discourse, the ongoing elections in India have been interpreted and propagated as one that has villainised Beijing for electoral gains. This short-sighted assessment has also been supplemented with criticisms of the BJP’s hard-line positions on matters pertaining to China including the border dispute. Second, the academic discourse on the ongoing elections has, alternatively, focused on the nuances of political ideologies and the future of democratic values in India. Although critical in some ways, these assessments by scholars illustrate the changing nature of political power in India’s democratic journey and the subsequent consequences for India-China ties thereafter.

Within the realm of Chinese discourse on India’s elections, the prevailing sentiments nevertheless remains that the ruling party will likely return to power. These assessments, whether subjective or propagandic, are imbedded in the notion that rising nationalist sentiments along with enduring popularity of Prime Minister Modi are among the leading factors that give the BJP a significant edge over the opposition.

All things considered, the Party tone propagated by state-affiliated media houses still prevails as the primary discourse setter. By laying emphasis on the shortcomings of India as a democracy induced by populism and unhealthy nationalistic sentiments, the primary narrative aims to discredit India's domestic electoral practices. Thus, in the battle between perception and propaganda, the Party’s narrative continues to find greater influence in China, instead of one grounded in reality.

Author

A postgraduate in Global Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi, Ratish’s area of interest includes understanding the value of Narratives, Rhetoric and Ideology in State and Non-State interactions, deconstructing political narratives in Global Affairs as well as focusing on India’s Foreign Policy interests in the Global South and South Asia. He was previously associated with The Pranab Mukherjee Foundation and has worked on projects such as Indo-Sino relations, History of the Constituent Assembly of India and the Evolution of Democratic Institutions in India. His forthcoming projects at ORCA include a co-edited Special Issue on India’s Soft Power Diplomacy in South Asia, Tracing India’s Path as the Voice of the Global South and Deconstructing Beijing’s ‘Global’ Narratives.

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