When 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a border skirmish with Chinese troops in a remote Himalayan valley last month, the outcry in India was swift and widespread. Anti-China protests erupted throughout the country, from the burning of effigies of Chinese President Xi Jinping, to demonstrations calling for an “economic war” against China. Then Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to troops near the disputed border with China. In a thinly veiled swipe at Beijing, he said “the age of expansionism” was over and the weak could not bring about peace. Analysts say Modi’s aggressive tone fits the public mood and the policies of his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has given a freer rein to the army since taking power in 2014, but he will not risk an all out conflict with his larger and better armed neighbour. Until the BJP’s rise to power six years ago, Indian politics had been dominated by the centre-left Indian National Congress party. The party stressed socio-economic development and a policy of engagement with China after 1947, when India gained independence from Britain. However, the two countries did clash in a brief border war in late 1962, resulting in an embarrassing defeat for India and expansion of Chinese territory in the Himalayan area of Aksai Chin. Even so, the Congress party sought better relations with China after the conflict, which meant keeping the military on a tight leash, said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “Congress was always very persuasive and would ask the military not to do this or that along the border because it would aggrieve China,” Kondapalli said. This shifted after Modi and the BJP came into power in 2014 and Kondapalli said this stemmed from the BJP putting more emphasis on territory and sovereignty. Did China miscalculate the rise of India? “From the Indian military’s point of view, this is more convenient because it still feels the burden of having lost the war in 1962, no army in the world wants to be seen as the defeated party,” he said. Modi and the BJP represent a turn to a Hindu-centric ideology and away from the secular and pluralistic nationalism that defined the country for more than half a century, said Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University in the United States. This ideology was evident in the decision in August to revoke Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had granted the northern Muslim-majority province of Jammu and Kashmir significant autonomy. “What happened in Kashmir with changing Article 370 was a demand from the nationalist camp,” said Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor of geopolitics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Ganguly said the BJP’s Hindu-centric nationalism influences India’s approach to the issue with China, because the contested border is in Kashmir. He said Modi and the BJP justified the removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status by pointing to separatist Muslim insurgents in the region supported by neighbouring rival Pakistan. Ganguly said this made it easy for Modi to gain public support for his government’s heavy-handedness in Kashmir. However, the same could not be said for China. “Because you have a large Muslim minority in India, and Pakistan was created as a homeland for Muslims, you can whip up a degree of nationalist fervour by painting Muslims as fifth columnists of Pakistan,” he said. “Whereas with China, it’s much more difficult to whip up a similar kind of nationalism because the Chinese community in India is so minuscule, but that doesn’t mean Modi isn’t trying.” Russia and US jostle for arms sales to India after tensions with China over border The “rampant Hindu nationalism” central to the BJP was a threat to the temporary cessation of hostilities in the Galwan Valley, where last month’s deadly conflict took place, said Liu Zongyi, secretary general of the South Asia and China Centre at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. “If Modi can’t control the voices calling for retaliation against China, there is no telling when there will be peace,” he said. But Liu said Modi would not let the nationalist fervour lead India into a war with China. “Modi wants to use this nationalist sentiment, but he is also scared of the blowback it might cause,” he said. Kondapalli agreed, saying that Modi and the BJP feared losing a full military conflict against China. The BJP’s main objective at the border is to show Indians that no further territorial encroachment would occur, according to Ganguly. He also said the protests did not represent the broader Indian public’s sentiment towards China. “Only people of my age remember the humiliation of 1962. It’s like asking my undergraduates to get angry about the Vietnam war,” Ganguly said. He added that many of the anti-China rallies were “carefully orchestrated events done by party leaders and workers who are trying to whip up a nationalist frenzy”. ‘The world’s against China’, say its comrades in India And the BJP could rein in the nationalist rhetoric when needed, Kondapalli said. Even after the deaths of the Indian soldiers on June 15, Kondapalli said the BJP had never thought of taking the dispute into anything beyond defence of a few kilometres of land along the border with China. “China’s military power is nearly four times that of India. The BJP understands power, they know that this is the ceiling, this is the limit.” Experts noted that even if the situation at the border remained stable, Modi and the BJP’s tough stance on regional neighbours like Pakistan and China had already drawn India closer to the US, altering the balance of power in South Asia. India set to invite Australia to join naval exercise “Modi’s nationalism has ruined regional stability,” said Liu from Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, adding that India’s growing ties with Quad – a strategic grouping made up of the US, Japan, Australia, and India – were making Beijing feel encircled from the Indian to the Pacific oceans. Li Xing, a professor of international relations at Aalborg University in Denmark, agreed and said China was “very angry” that Modi was pursuing closer defence ties with the US. “Beijing always had an expectation from New Delhi that it would not make an alliance with other countries focusing on China. After all, China did not ally with Pakistan and other countries to encircle India,” he said. Rajan Kumar, a professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said the Indian government would consider abandoning its decades-long foreign policy strategy of non-alignment, which involved maintaining good relations with both the US and China. “The argument for a very good partnership with the United States, especially in defence, is strong and those lobbying for that will grow stronger because of this conflict,” Kumar said.