S Jaishankar’s punishing Washington schedule aimed at countering Pakistan’s poison, tackling western bias on Kashmir

  • Foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar is currently in Washington DC, running an impossibly punishing schedule.

  • What explains Jaishankar’s rigorous diplomatic initiative, especially when India is thought to have isolated Pakistan diplomatically?

  • India’s Kashmir move has triggered a dual narrative.

  • It is Jaishankar’s express task to bring a convergence between these two narratives so that the rationale behind the Kashmir disruption is understood.

Foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar is currently in Washington DC, running an impossibly punishing schedule. He must, because prime minister Narendra Modi has entrusted Jaishankar with a job befitting the profile of India’s foremost strategic thinker, and it may test the limits of his considerable intellectual acumen. So far, India’s external affairs minister has remained up to the task — that of challenging, moulding and even shifting the international narrative on Kashmir by engaging actively with America’s formidable foreign policy establishment.

In a span of 72 hours, for instance, Jaishankar has met and/or is slated to meet/engage with five of the topmost think tanks in DC — Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Atlantic Council, the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution. Earlier, on the sidelines of United Nations General Assembly, he had addressed a session at the Council on Foreign Relations and Asia Society — both based in New York. In between, he also found time to appear on Singapore’s Channel News Asia.

Jaishankar’s engagements also include, as Chidanand Rajghatta writes in The Times of India, "meeting 42 foreign ministers, holding 36 bilateral meetings, eight pull-asides, seven multilaterals/plurilaterals and three speaking engagements, in addition to supporting Modi’s own engagements with more than a dozen world leaders. He has also met and/or is meeting “US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, defence secretary Mark Esper, new national security advisor Robert O’Brien, and acting homeland secretary Kevin McAleenan.”

This intense diplomatic engagement is obviously backed by a plan. But before we proceed, the obvious question needs to be addressed. What explains Jaishankar’s rigorous diplomatic initiative, especially when India is thought to have isolated Pakistan diplomatically and ensured its comprehensive defeat (twice consecutively) on the UN platform?

 S Jaishankar’s punishing Washington schedule aimed at countering Pakistan’s poison, tackling western bias on Kashmir

External affairs minister S Jaishankar during an interaction with Carnegie Endowment in the United States. Image courtesy: Twitter/@DrSJaishankar

As the debates at United Nations Human Rights Council or the UN General Assembly have shown, the world understands India’s point of view and is sympathetic with its steps to revamp the political, legal and social architecture of Kashmir. By now, even Pakistan understands (even if it chooses to remain in denial) that the clock cannot be turned back and the issue of sovereign rights over the state of Jammu and Kashmir has been fundamentally settled in favour of India.

Yet even as India has exercised its sovereign rights over the troubled state in accordance with its democratic and constitutional provisions, the Kashmir argument is yet to be conclusively settled. The question then is, why is tackling this global narrative on Kashmir so important, when the Parliament has ratified abrogation of Article 370 with a two-thirds majority and the wider public remains firmly supportive of the government’s affirmative action?

The answer — which may also give us an insight into the nature of the challenge facing India and the nation's top diplomat Jaishankar — lies in the gap between India’s self-perception on Kashmir, and how the world has perceived the move.

India’s Kashmir move has triggered a dual narrative. As American Enterprise Fellow and Wall Street Journal columnist Sadanand Dhume has written in The Atlantic, “In the United States, India’s actions have attracted almost universally negative coverage: A spate of news stories and op-eds have highlighted the quashing of Kashmiri human rights, the risk of war between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, the threat to Indian federalism and democracy, and the rise of a muscular brand of Hindu nationalism hostile to Islam… In India, by contrast, the government’s decision was widely welcomed.”

It is Jaishankar’s express task to bring a convergence between these two narratives so that the rationale behind the Kashmir disruption is understood and India may create for itself a little more diplomatic legroom. This raises a third question. If India has already found diplomatic breathing space and has got Pakistan exactly where it wants — in an isolated diplomatic corner, why is it so worried about letting the world understand its narrative on Kashmir? Surely the abrogation of the special status and the bifurcation of the state is irreversible and in accordance with India’s sovereign rights?

There are two reasons why Modi had been on a diplomatic overdrive in the US coinciding with the UNGA, and Jaishankar has picked up the pace after Modi has returned home. One, the diplomatic legroom that India enjoys on Kashmir has a finite shelf life. Two, Pakistan is not going to limit its strategy to whining and cribbing on global platforms. We are far from reaching the endgame on Kashmir, and Indian political establishment and policy wonks are aware of Pakistan’s increasing desperation.

As Ashok Malik, former press secretary to the President, writes in Hindustan Times, “what has concluded is only the first round. The Kashmir issue is an article of faith for Pakistan, a critical organising principle of its foreign policy and self-identity. One must not underestimate the adversary’s resolve. Pakistan’s determination, even desperation, will keep Kashmir simmering as a diplomatic challenge for India for the foreseeable future.”

Pakistan may not only try its best to activate the terror networks to wreak havoc on Kashmir, the political leadership led by its prime minister Imran Khan is desperately trying to instigate violence in the Valley through relentless incendiary rhetoric. Pakistan, as Malik has pointed out, will also work hard “through its own diaspora networks and political allies in the West, particularly in the United Kingdom and Europe, and the United States too.”

It hasn’t helped India that the British and American "liberal" press suffers from a fundamental dislike of Modi, and that hatred clouds the western media’s judgment when it comes to Kashmir. The foreign media outlets have been the most vocal critics of India’s Kashmir move and its vituperative rhetoric has fallen only just short of Khan’s radioactive fear-mongering.

As Washington-based Indian scribe Seema Sirohi writes in Economic Times, “even when the New York Times published an op-ed by India’s ambassador Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the editors took days for ‘fact-checking’ — a standard that apparently was unnecessary for (Imran) Khan’s propagandistic piece printed earlier. An offering by a respected Indian analyst to the Washington Post was rendered pointless, because all mentions of Pakistan’s terrorist enterprise were eliminated. He withdrew his piece."

In this context, the role played by Jaishankar in tackling, mitigating and correcting this bias has been vital, and the foreign minister — a career officer in diplomatic service — has brought to bear his intellectual heft and deep understanding of international relations in helping the foreign policy establishment in the US understand the nuances of India’s decision on Kashmir. Going through the interactions, one is struck by how western diplomacy sometimes suffers from a vacuum and an inability to tide over the confirmation bias that affects its point of view — traits that Pakistan has been trying to exploit.

A typical exchange during an address by Jaishankar at the New York-based CFR may be worth recalling. In answer to a question on restoring normalcy and civil liberties in Kashmir — an issue of particular interest in US foreign policy community and human rights groups, Jaishankar had to dive deep to let the audience understand the context in which 5 August happened. Kashmir wasn’t Paris before abrogation of Article 370 and didn’t turn into Palestine immediately after.

Jaishankar said: “…pre-5 August—please remember this—pre-5 August, Kashmir was in a mess. I mean, the difficulties in Kashmir have not started on 5 August. 5 August is supposed to be a way of dealing with those difficulties. So the choices were either you continue what was clearly not working or you try something very different. And I think the decision was to try something very different… So our expectation today is, by doing away with what was a temporary solution, what was meant as a bridge but became a barrier, that we will be able to push investments, economic activities, into Kashmir, that we will be able to frankly change the economic landscape, change the social landscape.”

He explains that “it’s not an easy exercise, because there are deep vested interests which will resist it”, and therefore the government’s “first concern was that there would be violence”. So, the communication blockades that have been put in place were guided by an intention to “manage this transition situation without loss of life” and hence the restrictions that were put in place on “gathering of people, about communication, these were intended to prevent that (violence).”

At the CSIS on Tuesday, Jaishankar reiterated the message, explaining that the status quo in Kashmir needed to be challenged and revised, because “economic costs of the status quo were visible in the absence of entrepreneurship and shortage of job opportunities. The social costs were even starker: in discrimination against women, in lack of protection for juveniles, in the refusal to apply affirmative action and in denial of the right to information, education and work…”

This, the minister clarified, “added up to security costs as the resulting disaffection fed separatism and fuelled a neighbour’s terrorism. At a broader level, these realities also contradicted our commitment that no region, no community and no faith would be left behind.”

At a broader level, the diplomatic initiative that Modi and now Jaishankar is taking, is designed to perhaps hide the structural deficiencies of the Indian state and its capacity constraints, but India’s strategy on Kashmir is to de-hyphenate itself from Pakistan (that Modi exemplified at UNGA by broad-basing his address) and engage with the larger global diplomatic and foreign policy community to buy more strategic space and diplomatic goodwill and translate that into a little more time to implement its agenda on Kashmir. And if this is the spear, Jaishankar is at the tip of it, foiling Pakistan’s poisonous rhetoric with thoughtful and reasoned debates.

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Updated Date: Oct 02, 2019 16:49:29 IST