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India-US relations beyond damage?

Prime minister Narendra Modi needs to emphatically clear the air to control the ramifications of president Donald Trump’s prattling

Not to put too fine a point on it but the remarks of US President Donald Trump during his meeting with the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan are a big setback in the budding India-US strategic relationship. His blathering on Kashmir and his claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken to him about Kashmir—and even asked him if he would like to become a mediator or arbitrator on Kashmir—has not only caused short-term damage to India-US relations but has also sowed doubts about the long-term relationship.

By crossing one of India’s red lines, Trump has undermined the trust and confidence that had painstakingly been built over the last two decades. It’s ironically almost 20 years to the day when one of Trump’s predecessors changed the entire dynamic of the India-US relationship by siding with India during the Kargil war in 1999. Trust levels had reached a point where India was quite comfortable in sourcing defence equipment and energy requirements from the US.

Although both sides are trying to limit the damage, the level at which this is being done and the way it is being done—the State Department’s South and Central Asia division’s tweet and the Ministry of External Affairs firing a coma-inducing, anodyne tweet—isn’t going to paper over the fracture caused by Trump’s remarks. At the very least, either the prime minister or the external affairs minister should make a strong and unequivocal statement, preferably in Parliament, debunking Trump’s claims and reiterating India’s red lines.

The mealy-mouthed tweet by the MEA spokesman will only make matters worse. At a diplomatic level, it will convey an impression that PM Modi is not ready to stand up and say it like it is. This will be taken by the US as a signal that India can be pushed around on the issue of Jammu & Kashmir and perhaps made to compromise, not to serve India’s interest but to forward US interests. At a political level, any display of excessive caution in responding to Trump in the hope of rescuing relations with the US will be akin to accepting political crucifixion: Modi’s detractors are already ebullient over the embarrassment caused by Trump and are training their guns at him.

Given the strong-man image cultivated by the prime minister, the Opposition will be justified in taking him to the cleaners if he doesn’t come out and clarify his position and just puts forward a lowly bureaucrat to parrot India’s traditional stand.

Here’s the thing: everyone is aware of India’s stand. But Trump claiming that Modi sought his mediation and/or arbitration on Kashmir completely upends this position. If emphatically making India’s stand clear—and the prime minister correcting or, if you will, fact-checking Trump—will sour ties with the US, that is just too bad. The cost of letting Trump get away with what he said unchallenged will be far greater because it will make India look like a nation that can protect neither its interests nor its integrity. By appearing to be a pushover on an issue that India has long defined as a core interest, Modi and his government will cause far more grievous harm than anything the terrorists or their handlers can throw at India. This is so because the impression that Trump gave during his interaction with Imran Khan was that in his desperation to cut and run from Afghanistan—as he calls it, extricate troops and stop playing the policeman in the region—he is ready to not only sell Afghanistan down the tube but also stick it to India as part of the deal. It’s the Trumpian version of buy one, get one free.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the US has tried to insert itself in the Kashmir equation. While no purpose will be served by going into history—for example, how the US leveraged its military assistance to India after the 1962 debacle to force India to compromise with Pakistan on Kashmir—even after the US and India started drawing closer, so-called “intellectually inclined” US presidents like Barack Obama were given to buying Pakistan’s self-serving linkage between Kabul and Kashmir. When he appointed his special envoy for the AfPak region, Obama added India to the area of responsibility because Pakistan had sold him the line that without Kashmir, there can be no solution in Afghanistan.

At that point of time, the Manmohan Singh government nipped this mischief in the bud. A strong protest was lodged and India snubbed the special envoy by denying him a visa to visit India. Finally, the US smelled the coffee and backed off by removing Kashmir/India from the special envoy’s remit.

Pakistan has always sought external intervention and mediation on Kashmir. In virtually every single interaction with their foreign interlocutors, the Pakistanis keep parroting the K-word. Other countries (the relevant ones, at least) mostly avoid the minefield laid out for them by Pakistan by saying the issue needs to be resolved by the two countries through dialogue. They sometimes even offer their good offices to mediate a solution but always add the caveat that both sides must accept this offer. Since India never will, this is a sort of pro forma thing, a lollipop that foreign leaders give to Pakistan. Even Pakistan’s all-weather friend China has sidestepped Kashmir. But Trump being Trump, he stepped into the minefield without applying his mind.

It is inconceivable that someone like Modi, given his ideological grounding and his political and diplomatic experience, would commit the Himalayan blunder of asking a loose cannon like Trump to mediate between India and Pakistan. Forget Modi, not even a novice in politics on the other side of the political spectrum would make this mistake. What is more likely is that when Modi met Trump in Osaka during the G20 summit, the issue of Pulwama and Balakot would have cropped up. Modi must have apprised Trump of the export of terrorism from Pakistan and the jihad factory that Pakistan runs. He might have also informed Trump of how Pakistan is spreading murder and mayhem in Jammu & Kashmir. And then he would have told Trump that the US, which has been leading the War on Terror, needs to ratchet up the pressure on Pakistan so it ceases to be a breeding ground for terrorists.

If Trump assumed this to mean that Modi was seeking his mediation on Kashmir, then it is Trump’s cock-up. Even so, it becomes incumbent on Modi to clear the air and clarify what transpired during the Osaka meeting. The fact is that given Trump’s garrulity and proclivity to make remarks that are neither well-constructed, accurate nor well thought out, any clarification by Modi would hold a lot more credibility than anything Trump claims. If that riles Trump, too bad. The fear of merely contradicting Trump cannot form the bedrock of India’s US policy. In fact, there are many other world leaders who have taken on, corrected and even confronted Trump, and guess what? The heavens have not fallen on them.

Shooting down Trump’s remarks is important also because the damage caused by them is not just to the Indo-US relations but also in the context of Pakistan and the terrorist/separatist amalgam in Kashmir. Pakistan would, of course, crow about what Trump said. This would raise Imran Khan’s plummeting political stock among the Khanistas. The members of the Pakistani deep state and military establishment too would be enthused by what they heard and feel justified in placing their faith in “Im the Dim”—faith that had become shaky given the abysmal governance record of their “selected” prime minister.

But as and when India tells the US where it gets off, Pakistan, currently drunk on what it conceives as a huge success, will suffer a massive hangover. Incidentally, even Trump said he will speak to Modi and see what he says, and has not given any categorical assurance—quite like how Bill Clinton only promised his personal interest in seeking a solution to Kashmir. And then Pakistan will revert to its familiar lament about how India’s large market prevents the US from pressuring India, how India is pivotal to the US’s strategic designs against China, how Islamophobia has affected Muslims the world over (Chinese treatment of Uyghurs is of course never mentioned).

But that is Pakistan.

In Kashmir, however, the terrorist and separatist amalgam had become disheartened, even despondent, after the Modi victory in the 2019 general elections. All their hopes of an Opposition victory—which would have got them back in business—were dashed by the election results. Some of this will now get re-energised, emboldened and will remobilise. They’ll think that if they can create massive disturbances and generate fake stories of Indian brutalities, then they’ll get much greater traction than they have so far. Things which seemed suddenly to be improving in Kashmir are likely to go south again, even if temporarily.

The ramifications of Trump’s comments are likely to unfold for weeks, if not months. That is unavoidable. But some of the damage can be controlled if the prime minister emphatically and unequivocally shoots down what Trump said. But if he is more worried about his meeting with Trump in September, then there will be a price that India will pay. As the saying goes, sometimes it is better to have a wise enemy than a foolish friend. India, unfortunately, seems to have landed with both foolish enemies and foolish friends. That is the long and short of Trump’s remarks.

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