On all three India had to address the increasing US impatience with expected outcomes.
The social media in India, as well as in large parts of Pakistan, exulted over Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan getting a less than ceremonious reception in Washington. In fact, any head of government arriving on a commercial flight on an official visit would be received with similar protocol. Even for state visits, the official receiving is always a deputy from the state department’s protocol section. Imran Khan, though put on one of those ungainly transporters that bring passengers from the aircraft to the terminal at Washington’s Dulles International Airport, had the United States Secret Service escorting him.
The strategic dimension of the visit was missed by most observers. It has been speculated that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had worked the levers via President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to arrange it. In any case, the Afghan peace talks between the US and the Taliban had reached a phase where Pakistan’s role was critical. Pakistan’s utility increased further as a Sunni military power with tensions between the US, Britain and their Gulf allies and Iran escalating over the tit-for-tat downing of drones and seizure of tankers. That China, Russia and the US invited Pakistan to join their parleys over Afghanistan only underscored the return of Pakistan from its economic and strategic isolation.
In South Block, on the other hand, this assessment was still not absorbed as Indian diplomacy rested on Washington continuing to tilt in India’s favour whenever India-Pakistan issues were raised by Pakistan. India should have been alert that Mr Trump’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Osaka G-20 summit did not exude great personal magic between the two leaders. Mr Trump seemed in a listening mode on “trade” and defence issues, as well as on Iran. On all three India had to address the increasing US impatience with expected outcomes. Thus, India and Pakistan were on opposing escalators, one headed towards the US and the other, on which India stood, stalled or heading away.
In this context, the half-hour of theatre conducted largely by Mr Trump, in the presence of a smug Imran Khan massaging the former’s ego, led to a number of controversial remarks. First, with the Indian Parliament in session, to have named the Indian Prime Minister as having sought Mr Trump’s mediation to settle the Kashmir issue during their meeting in Osaka was politically incendiary. It goes against two decades of Indian efforts diplomatically to de-hyphenate Pakistan from India-US relations. Second, it came as a “godsend” for Pakistan as the Kashmir issue got internationalised, which Pakistan has been unsuccessfully trying to do for two decades. Next, Mr Trump bought into the Pakistani propaganda by saying there are “only bombs” in Kashmir. Finally, Mr Trump, in keeping with his negotiating tactic of patting his interlocutors’ back, when he needs a deal, rejected any aspersions cast on the Pakistan government’s curtailing media freedom or simply lying about their counter-terrorism record. In fact, Mr Tru
mp compared how virtuous and truthful Pakistan was compared to the “lying” clerics of Iran. For New Delhi, it was tantamount to a diplomatic nightmare.
The Indian government had the external affairs ministry’s spokesman immediately deny that any such request was made to President Trump. The Opposition moved an adjournment motion against the government. They continue to insist on hearing from the PM in both Houses. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar made suo motu statements in both Houses, and categorically denied any request was made by Indian PM to the US President to mediate. He reiterated that all outstanding issues with Pakistan would be discussed bilaterally, as enjoined by the Shimla Agreement and Lahore Declaration. The Indian government thus literally calls Mr Trump as misstating facts. The US state department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs attempted to contain the damage by tweeting that “while Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss, the Trump administration welcomes #Pakistan and #India sitting down and the United States stands ready to assist.” This too is far removed from the Indian position of static obduracy that there shall be no contact, forget about talks, unless the Pakistan-sponsored terrorism ends.
A number of questions arise from the fracas. Was Mr Trump merely being inattentive to his briefings, or in a parallel universe of his own making and saying what he thought Imran Khan wanted to hear? Is it possible that he misconstrued some remark made by Prime Minister Modi in their off-the-record chat, before or after their formal meeting? Even more worrisome is whether any commitment over dialogue was conveyed by someone when getting Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman returned by Pakistan literally instantly, when India was still maintaining a hostile posture and the Lok Sabha election process was underway. It was Mr Trump who tweeted about the likely good news prior to the release, and was thus in the loop about the whole process, with the Saudis acting in tandem to convince Pakistan. While no analysis exists what impact Balakot and the wing commander’s return had on Lok Sabha polls, the converse is a certainty that had Pakistan used him like Kulbhushan Jadhav the image of Mr Modi as the avenger would have been seriously dented.
The disruption of the Houses of Parliament may continue for some time as the Opposition has eventually got an issue that puts the government on the backfoot after its historic mandate. More important is what impact it may have on India-US relations. In fairness, when Imran Khan tried via a Pakistani journalist’s question to extend US support to criticising India for giving succour to those spreading terror in Pakistan, Mr Trump reverted to a neutral stance, saying India has similar charges against Pakistan. But that still gives Pakistan the wrong moral equivalence, which it has been seeking since 26/11. The lesson from the episode is that India cannot remain tied to a static position — of no talks till terror ends. Nor should the US siding with India against Pakistan be assumed as a constant. Pakistan is regaining international acceptance and, more specifically, US patronage. Sometimes a hard handshake trumps a compulsive hug not matched by aligned interests. On Afghanistan, US-Pakistan interests today converge, while India-US positions on trade, defence sales and cooperation, intellectual property rights and India’s strategic independence in dealing with Russia and Iran are diverging. It’s a wake-up call for the Narendra Modi government.