Mana, India: The Mana Pass cleaves through the Himalayan rock that towers over it.
At 5632 metres, it is the highest road in the world.
For hundreds of years, this ancient trade route saw sheep herders from Tibet and China trade wool, salt and cheese with their Indian counterparts in Uttarakhand.
But there is no trade here with China anymore. Only army convoys guard the gap between the Saraswati and Sri Kailas mountains.
“I remember when my ancestors and elders used to trade with the Chinese,” says Harender Arya who runs the India First Tea Shop in Mana, the last village before the Chinese border.
“Things have changed now.”
The 45-year-old’s stall used to be called India’s Last Tea Shop. Then Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to town. He told the villagers they should change all of their names to “first”.
Now it is littered with “first” stalls, Indian flags and those of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“He made them all the first tea shop instead of the last. The last village became the first village,” says Arya.
“Everyone changed it because he said so.”
The village intervention by India’s most powerful leader in generations is the latest in a string of measures aimed not only at boosting his own country but also at confronting China’s own territorial ambitions.
The world’s two most populous countries are split by the Great Wall of the Himalayas.
But that natural divide has not stopped their slide into nationalism, economic rivalry and militarisation.
By the end of this decade, China and India will become two of the world’s largest economies.
The rest of the world could be forced to choose sides.
“By all accounts, we are looking at the lowest point in over a decade,” says Professor Alka Acharya, the chair of the Centre for East Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
In 2020, more than 20 Indian and Chinese soldiers were killed in a brutal border clash with clubs, stones and sticks in the neighbouring state of Ladakh.
Relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours have not recovered since.
In Mana, the Indian government is building a 51-kilometre stretch of road up to the Chinese border that will be widened to two lanes for the faster movement of troops when it is completed in three years.
For decades since India’s independence and China’s Communist revolution in the mid-20th century, border incidents, economic disputes and diplomatic competition had been carefully managed to avoid spilling into broader conflict.
“In the last decade that approach has been shattered by the inability of the two sides to see any means of compromising,” says Acharya.
The period has been marked by the rise of two of the world’s most ambitious politicians: Modi and China’s Xi Jinping. Xi was elected in 2012, Modi in 2014.
Both have held power since and entrenched a populist nationalist fervour in their countries. It is not in either of their interests to back down from a fight.
This week Xi said he would not be attending the G20 summit in New Delhi – the first gathering of the world’s largest economies he has missed since he became president. Then China published its official map, counting the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and the disputed Aksai-Chin plateau in Chinese territory.
“The state of the border will determine the state of the relationship [between India and China], and the state of the border today is still abnormal,” said India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
Shivshankar Menon, India’s former ambassador to China and a national security advisor, said there would be long-term consequences.
“Political relations will now be more adversarial, antagonistic,” he said. “There is no grand bargain.”
All along this 3500-kilometre border, both sides are trying to take advantage of an increasingly dysfunctional relationship. Villages in Chinese-controlled Tibet and the bordering Indian states of Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Ladakh are now in a race to build infrastructure and transform once impermanent settlements in a hostile environment into permanent towns that buttress each country’s claim to the border.
In China, the “Well-off Villages” program is resettling more than 250,000 Tibetans closer to India.
“[The villages] add permanence and credibility to Beijing’s territorial claims,” said Aleksandra Gadzala Tirziu, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and the chief executive of geopolitical firm Magpie Advisory.
“The [People’s Liberation Army] strategy along the [border] is akin to that deployed in the South China Sea, where China uses a combination of hybrid and salami-slicing tactics.”
Some of the Chinese villages are serving hybrid civilian-military purposes, including “expanded roads, outposts, and modern weatherproof camps equipped with amenities such as parking areas, solar panels, and helipads,” according to a report based on satellite images by British think tank Chatham House.
In April, the Indian government countered by launching a $600 million “Vibrant Villages Program” to develop 2967 villages.
In the next three years alone, 662 villages are due to be built near the border.
“Diplomatic efforts between India and China – including the most recent May meeting of a joint working group on border issues – have not amounted to much,” said Tirziu.
The dispute has been a useful political foil for Modi and Xi as they ride waves of nationalist appeal and deflect attention away from economic woes at home.
“Nationalism has been stoked on both sides,” says Acharya. “Arguably, we have seen more on the Indian side.
In April, a billboard in Delhi lauded Modi for his 78 per cent approval rating by comparing him to other world leaders, including Anthony Albanese’s 58 per cent and US President Joe Biden’s 40 per cent.
Now he appears ready to ram that advantage home ahead of next year’s elections after already serving a decade in office.
The G20, which starts on Saturday, is the centrepiece of his push to transform international prestige into domestic power.
In the middle of the G20 venue at Bharat Mandapam in New Delhi is an 8½-metre tall, 19-tonne statue of Nataraja, symbolising the Hindu god Lord Shiva.
Cultural artefacts from 29 other G20 members and guests will also be represented.
Few will be as dominant as Nataraja and Shiva’s cosmic power of creation and destruction.
The blend of religion and politics might be jarring to some democratic leaders, but it appeals to Modi and the BJP, who see it as a vehicle to further their own interests and restore India’s ancient credentials.
Even the moon is not beyond his reach. In August, Modi named the site of India’s lunar touchdown Shiv Shakti Point, the Hindu term for two opposing forces.
Then last week Modi asked his 91 million followers on X, formerly known as Twitter, to post messages about the G20 in Sanskrit, which he described as the mother of many modern languages on his monthly radio show.
On dinner invitations to the leaders of the G20 he changed the name of India to Bharat, the country’s name in Sanskrit.
Reuters reported prior to Xi’s withdrawal that China had been particularly belligerent in opposing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s theme for the conference being written in the ancient language.
Acharya believes the tension between the two powers and Xi’s no-show will have a flow-on effect for the rest of the world.
“The implication of Sino-Indian tensions, in terms of pushing the agenda of development for the global south, would be critical for the demands on a range of issues, from climate change to indebtedness to infrastructure. This partnership could have actually made a very substantial difference,” says Acharya.
“For South-East Asia, in particular, this is not a very good development, because it puts them in a somewhat awkward position of having to either make choices or take a stance on this, on this whole issue.”
Modi already has one eye focused on his next domestic challenge. In May, the 72-year-old oversaw the opening of India’s new three-storey parliament, which takes up the space of nine football fields.
If he wins next year, he could expand his footprint even further as the parliament increases its capacity to 888 seats in the lower house and 384 in the upper house.
To do so he will be relying on the foothills of the Himalayas, where BJP support is strong.
The villagers here fill the Indian army through training schools in Dehradun.
Wild elephants still roam the forests. Locals say cows are so scared of leopards they do not go into the dense jungle.
In Devprayag, the Central Sanskrit University towers over the valley, and beneath it the Bhagirathi and Alakananda Rivers join their glacial blue and brown fresh waters to become the Ganges, the holy river of Hinduism and the vein of India.
The University opened in 2020.
Its chancellor is India’s Minister of Education, Dharmendra Pradhan.
This week it urged students to submit ideas to celebrate the 100th episode of Modi’s radio show. Further north in Badrinath, the G20 has been used to spruik a new 600 crore ($10 million) plan to redevelop the area by 2025.
The town is plastered with G20 logos accompanying Modi’s vision for a new town centre.
“All the shops and homes have been demolished,” says 54-year-old nut shop owner Parmanand Mamgain.
“I’m supposed to get some compensation but it hasn’t come yet. There are always problems, but when it’s done it will be good.
Mamgain, like many people in this beautiful but barren landscape, is resilient. He is also reluctant to criticise Modi – despite having his own property bulldozed – in a country in which Modi’s party retains a record 65 per cent of seats and dominates local elections.
Here in the Himalayas, where holy men walk barefoot across rubble and streams that pour down the mountainside, and pilgrims are carried in baskets on locals’ backs, Modi’s vision has won him many friends and a few adversaries.
“He has a really great decision-making power,” says 26-year-old lawyer Kaivalya Jarande, who visited the centuries-old Badrinath temple, one of India’s holiest sites, with his friend Atharv Gaikwad.
“I think our prime minister thinks from every angle. I think he has a great team. And he’s a great leader.”
Jarande is unconcerned by Modi’s blend of Hindu nationalism.
“I think it’s good for India,” he says.
But others are unconvinced.
“He is dividing people by religion,” says farmer Rajendra Shivram, a devout Hindu who travelled to Badrinath on a pilgrimage.
More than 75 per cent of Indians identify as Hindu, 14 per cent are Muslim and 2 per cent are Christian and Sikh.
Despite the dominance of Hinduism, the country remains vulnerable to sectarian violence, and families, businesses and friends remain largely split along religious lines.
Shivram says the regions have also been left behind as wealth grows in the cities.
On the winding road to Badrinath, homes that have been hit by landslides fall into the ravine.
When they are turned upside down, they often stay that way, their floors facing the sky.
“He keeps talking about infrastructure, but the roads to get here are totally damaged. All he does is announce things,” he says.
“The same with the troops that they are sending to the border with China. It’s all just for show. It’s for domestic political purposes.”
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