Narendra Modi-Donald Trump bilateral talks at UN: Indian media needs to learn there's more to India-US relationship than just Pakistan

  • If Trump's understanding of India's position on Kashmir is the first thing that the presser made clear, the second thing that became evident is POTUS's faith in Modi's ability as a leader of a complex, diverse nation

  • The fact remains that India's relationship with US is multifaceted and has way more dimensions than US-Pakistan ties, that is limited to security concerns of a strictly transactional nature

  • Trump is unequivocally reiterating India's position on Kashmir, that any 'solution' to the dispute will have to be strictly bilateral

Apart from over-eager journalists, there's little to compare the two pressers — the one with the Pakistan media and the one with their Indian counterparts. Donald Trump's remarks before the Pakistan media ahead of his bilateral with prime minister Imran Khan on Monday was characterised by an odd combination of frivolity and desperation. No points for guessing who was being frivolous, and who sounded desperate.

As this piece argues, Trump gave the beleaguered Pakistani prime minister absolutely nothing to cheer about on Kashmir except some pacifiers. The presser with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday, however, made a few things clear.

One, Trump understands India's position on Kashmir and while he respects India's veto on third-party mediation, nevertheless as the President of United States he would like to see India — as the mature partner in the dispute helmed by an able leader — handle the dispute in a way that he doesn't have to worry too much about a nuclear Armageddon in South Asia. Beyond that, Trump cares little and understands even less the modalities of Kashmir issue or the historical grievance that two nations suffer from.

During the media interaction, according to the readout released by White House, Trump repeatedly deflected questions on Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism and its propaganda on Kashmir by imposing his faith in Modi and his ability to "sort things out." Let's look at few exchanges.

"Q: …Pakistan has been the global epicenter of terrorism. You spoke about it in Houston. How do you make sure that you clamp down on terrorism from Pakistan? Because that is posing a threat to democracies like the U.S. and India. Even the business interests suffer because of continuing terrorism (shortened).

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, I had a very good meeting with Prime Minister Khan. It was a long meeting and we discussed a lot. And I think he'd like to see something happen that would be very fruitful, very peaceful. And I think that will happen, ultimately. I really believe that these two great gentlemen will get together and work something. I also — you know, you mentioned Pakistan, but Iran would have to be at the top of the list. Because if you look at terrorist states, that's been the number one for a long time. But I really believe that Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Khan, they get along - they will get along when they get to know each other. And I think a lot of good things will come from that meeting."

This is important because much more is going on in the subtext than what is immediately apparent. First, Trump is unequivocally reiterating India's position on Kashmir, that any "solution" to the dispute will have to be strictly bilateral. He is simultaneously nudging India towards restarting the dialogue process with Pakistan, though he is careful not to set a timeframe or put pressure. Note the words: "...they will get along when they get to know each other."

 Narendra Modi-Donald Trump bilateral talks at UN: Indian media needs to learn theres more to India-US relationship than just Pakistan

If Trump's understanding of India's position on Kashmir is the first thing that the presser made clear, the second thing that became evident is POTUS's faith in Modi's ability as a leader of a complex, diverse nation. Getty Images

Second, even though Trump is loathe to repeat India's position that Pakistan is the epicenter of global terror — Trump has obviously bigger beef with Iran and all nations set their foreign policy guidelines and narratives according to self-interests — but he still did not contest the reporter's core argument that Pakistan is a sponsor of terror. He merely said, "Iran would have to be at the top of the list," leaving unsaid the suggestion that Pakistan's name also features prominently on that purported "list". This is again a tacit endorsement of India's narrative (though not to the degree that New Delhi would have liked) that Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism is a global concern.

Third, this exchange also indicates that Trump is not ready to throw Khan under the bus. Though Indian media would have nothing more but that is not how nations conduct diplomacy. Afghanistan "peace talks" (a euphemism if ever there was one) might be going nowhere and Pakistan may have temporarily lost its best leverage with the US, but as long as American troops remain on Afghan soil, Trump is aware that the clock is ticking. Trump's desperation to "win" the "unwinnable war" and bring the troops back home just before campaign for 2020 Presidential election kicks off translates into another chance for Pakistan to become relevant again. In any case, nations rarely design foreign policy based on ideals. Had that been the case, India wouldn't have been buying oil from Iran or striking up arms deals with Russia despite the track records of these two nations in sponsoring terrorism.

One more exchange points to the conclusion that Trump doesn't want to sound too harsh on Pakistan, but he doesn't contest the core argument that it has role in sponsoring radical Islamic/Islamist terrorism. Let's have a look.

"Q …Mr. President, in Houston, you said that you stand with India in fight against Islamic radical terrorism. How do you see the statement coming from the Pakistani Prime Minister admitting (at an event organised by a think tank) that the Pakistani state, the ISI trained al Qaeda?

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, I haven't heard that. I haven't heard that. And I know this: that your Prime Minister (Modi) will take care of it. So, if there's a problem, he'll - if there's a problem, he'll take care of it. It would be great if they could work out something on Kashmir. We all want to see that. I'm sure we all want to see it."

If Trump's understanding of India's position on Kashmir is the first thing that the presser made clear, the second thing that became evident is POTUS's faith in Modi's ability as a leader of a complex, diverse nation lodged in a tough neighbourhood. Trump repeatedly pointed towards Modi's ability to handle complex situations and used similes and monikers to describe him that have sparked political debates in India. He compared Modi to Elvis Presley for his ability to draw crowds and called him the "father of India" which Modi's rivals and critics back home have found difficult to digest.

Trump described his personal chemistry with Modi as "as good as it can get", claimed that he has "great respect" and "great admiration" and also added that Modi is a "great gentleman and a great leader." Given Trump's limited vocabulary, that is as superlative as he can possibly get.

In true Trumpian style, he also somewhat airily described India before Modi as a "very torn" place. "There was a lot of dissension, a lot of fighting. And he brought it all together, like a father would bring it together. Maybe he's the father of India. We'll call him "the father of India." I think that's not so bad. But he brought things together. And you don't hear that anymore. So I think he's done a fantastic job. But I think that what the event showed is how much I like the country of India and how much I like your Prime Minister."

Such Trumpian monikers must be taken with caution but it doubtless indicates that he was impressed with Modi, and by what he saw at Houston.

However, the final point evident from the presser is that despite the strategic closeness and convergence of values and interests, trade will likely remain the defining feature of US-India bilateral ties — at least till Trump occupies the Oval Office. At the presser, too, Trump very clearly mentioned the chief agenda of his bilateral with Modi that took place shortly after the presser on the sidelines of UNGA.

"…We have many things to discuss. One of them — and perhaps in our case, one of the biggest ones is trade. We do a lot of trade together and we're working on that. We'll also be discussing Kashmir. I imagine it'll be brought up." Later in the new conference, he expressed hope that "very soon we'll have a trade deal. We'll have the larger deal down the road a little bit, but we will have a trade deal very soon" but that hope, according to latest news reports, appears to have been belied with the US and Indian negotiators (led by Union External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale and Indian Ambassador to the US, Harsh Shringla) failing to reach to a conclusion.

A report in The Hindu noted that despite progress in talks, a trade deal could not be chalked out because both sides failed to "reach an agreement on Information and communications technology (ICT) products. The US has wanted India to eliminate tariffs (20 percent) on ICT products, but New Delhi is concerned that this could open up the market to flooding by Chinese technology."

While that may be the case, the fact remains that India's relationship with the US is multifaceted and has way more dimensions than US-Pakistan ties — that is limited to security concerns of a strictly transactional nature. It was disheartening to see Indian media restrict itself only to Pakistan, when ties between the world's oldest and largest democracy had many more areas to cover.

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Updated Date: Sep 25, 2019 17:01:33 IST