The Indian media has shown a bit of triumphalism in the aftermath of the Narendra Modi-Donald Trump meeting in Biarritz, France. The headlines have portrayed it as some sort of a diplomatic victory for India as the US president seemingly backed off from his oft-repeated desire to mediate in the Kashmir issue. The good chemistry and jovial conversation between the Indian prime minister and POTUS was widely noted.
A headline in Financial Express suggested, "Big diplomatic win for India as US concedes Kashmir a bilateral issue. Republic TV noted: “PM Narendra Modi Aces G7, Scripts Diplomatic Success. Business Standard posed, “Bonhomie at Biarritz: Modi charms Trump but can he keep him on India's side?" An India Today report said: “Donald Trump backs off on Kashmir, Imran Khan issues nuclear threat”. Firstpost commented: “As Narendra Modi deftly concludes successful G7 Summit visit, Pakistan would do well to read writing on the wall.” Modi’s move seemingly charmed even his political rivals, with Congress leader Shatrughan Sinha (a strident Modi critic) praising the prime minister with the words, “tera jadoo chal gaya” (your magic worked).
This widespread triumphalism could be a little misplaced. Primarily because it is based on the latest line taken by Trump, and the US president is a notorious mix of ignorance, bluster and impulsiveness. His foreign policy stances may change according to his mood, or even which side of the bed he gets out of. To base a "diplomatic victory" on Trump’s latest comments is a risky proposition.
This is a president who had tweeted on the first day of the new year in 2018 that Pakistan had given the US nothing but lies. And just a year later, after a meeting with Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan at the White House, he declared that “Pakistan never lies”.
During that meeting with Khan, Trump had declared himself ready to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and even suggested that Modi had himself requested him to do so, prompting an unusual and prompt fact-check from India which stated almost within an hour that “No such request has been made by the prime minister to the US President… It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally.” Such put-downs are rare in diplomacy.
Trump repeated the offer two more times, each time a little more ambiguously than the previous one, and seemed to be coming round to the view that unless both sides are ready for it, such an offer for mediation is meaningless.
The last time Trump spoke on such an issue was on 21 August — just a few days ahead of meeting Modi — where he seemed to get a grasp of the complexities involved in the issue but in a typical Trumpian style, he had said that “Kashmir’s a very complicated place. You have the Hindus, and you have the Muslims, and I wouldn’t say they get along so great. And that’s what you have right now,” while reporters in the White House.
In between he had repeated his mediation offer. “We are helping the situation. There are tremendous problems between those two countries and I will do the best I can to mediate or do something. It is a complicated situation. A lot has to do with religion. Religion is a complicated subject.” Trump also suggested that India and Pakistan “have been having these talks for hundreds of years. You have millions of people who want to be ruled by others …maybe on both sides…and you have two countries that haven’t gotten along well for a long time.”
Instead of letting Trump’s ramblings be the indicator that ties with the US are well on track and that there is no imminent threat of a US meddling on Kashmir issue, India would do well to keep the eye on the ball — in this case, focusing on the fundamentals of the India-US relationship, doing the groundwork for sustained engagement in areas of friction, maintaining steady progress in areas of convergence and never forgetting that the key to touch Trump’s heart resides in trade "deals".
Consider for a moment the comments made by Trump on Monday before his bilateral meeting with Modi in Biarritz, a seaside town in the southwestern part of France. The US president appeared charmed by Modi and let slip the adjectives while referring to their interaction during dinner the night before: “We were together last night for dinner, and I learned a lot about India. Fascinating place. Beautiful place. And it’s an honour to be with you. A real honour.” At this stage, before the media had asked him any questions, Trump said that during his meeting with Modi, they talked about trade, military, “many different things” and both had “some great discussions.”
On being prompted by a question later on during the news conference regarding Kashmir, the US president said, “Well, we spoke last night about Kashmir. And the prime minister really feels he has it under control. I know they speak with Pakistan, and I’m sure that they will be able to do something that will be very good. We spoke about it last night at great length.”
It is worth quoting in full the remarks made by both leaders had on the question on whether there is any space for the US to mediate among India and Pakistan on Kashmir.
Modi said, “India and Pakistan have — all the issues are of bilateral nature. And we do not want to give pains to any country in the world — to, in fact, try to do anything in this, because these issues are bilateral. And I trust that before 1947, when we were one country, that even afterwards we can find solutions through discussions.”
The next question was to Trump on whether he still has the mediation offer on the table.
Trump replied: “I’m here. Look, I have a very good relationship with both gentlemen, and I’m here. If for any reason — but I think they can do it themselves very well. They’ve been doing it for a long time.”
Three things are with noting from these remarks. One, Modi firmly nixed any suggestions or possibility of a mediation by any third party — a consistent Indian foreign policy position. He uttered these words even as Trump was seated next to him. Two, Modi also laid down the possibility of resuming dialogue with Pakistan and did not mention India’s well-articulated stand that all Pakistan-sponsored terror activities must stop for dialogue to resume. The fact that Modi did not mention terror does not indicate that India is ready to water down the preconditions for talks, but it is merely a signal to the rest of the world that India is not unreasonable and obdurate and doesn’t want to play into Pakistan’s threat of nuclear holocaust.
The third thing worth noting is Trump’s response. While he was quite categorical that both nations can manage the issue “very well”, nevertheless he declared himself to be available. “I’m here. If for any reason…” he left the rest unsaid. He had also stressed earlier, referring to Modi, that “Prime Minister really feels he has it under control.” This could be a tacit way of applying pressure and suggesting that the US will have India’s back but only till such time that the situation in Kashmir, internally, doesn’t spiral out of control.
This is the biggest takeaway from the Modi-Trump meet. The US, like all other major powers including France, Russia and even the UK (which after getting a lot of bad press on siding with China and Pakistan on Kashmir at the UNSC hastened to refute such reports) — are ready to give India a fair of time and show a fair amount of patience as New Delhi tries to get its house in order on Kashmir. But there is no telling what may happen if civil liberties and democratic rights remain suspended for longer in the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir and if there is widespread violence following the withdrawal of restrictions over communication and free movement of people and goods.
That will be India’s biggest test. Until then, the triumphalism over India’s diplomatic victory should ideally remain suspended.
Updated Date: Aug 29, 2019 00:13:26 IST