PM entrusted Jaishankar to showcase ‘New India image’ to US administrators, policymakers, top think tanks.
Washington DC: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s global outreach programme to brand India as the “most strategic and dependable partner” to the United States, made the Americans and the Indian diaspora buzzing from Houston to New York, where he enthralled thousands with his speech and signature “Trump-Modi chemistry”.
PM Modi may have ended his US leg with the 74th UNGA session, but his “New India” brand building mission finally ended in Washington DC on 3 October, a week after he left the US. He had entrusted his mission to showcase the “New India image” to the US administrators, policymakers and top think tanks to the man he trusts most for the country’s new diplomacy moves—External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.
Jaishankar’s DC stopover had a mission cut out and his itinerary barely had a slot left. From giving talks and interacting with seven top think tanks in three days to attending different strategic platforms, including the US-India Business Council and US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, to top level meetings starting with his counterpart US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to his crucial meetings with the new Defense Secretary Mike Esper and also with the new National Security Advisor Robert Charles O’Brien to discuss a range of bilateral, regional and global issues, he didn’t miss to meet Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who appreciated India’s new “climate change efforts”.
Interestingly, his think tank hopping in DC has left many South Asian experts and Indian watchers talking about “New India” and the tone with which it is engaging with the world. Some see this as also an attempt by India to bridge the information gap among the academia, policymakers and think tank specialists on South Asia and strategic affairs in the US in the wake of reports in the Western media about India after it ended Jammu and Kashmir’s special status by abrogating Article 370 of its Constitution on 5 August. Also, a lot has been written here in the Western media after PM Modi’s second historic mandate. It was also an opportunity to correct the India picture in the West post the 2019 election mandate.
South Asia expert at Woodrow Wilson’s South Asia Center, Michael Kugelman sees more beyond the obvious from Jaishankar’s visit. Kugelman told The Sunday Guardian: “Jaishankar’s think tank outreach served two purposes. One was to indicate a desire to expand India’s engagement with Washington beyond US government interlocutors and to the many policy analysis shops around town, which enjoy high levels of influence. The second was to showcase the Indian narrative about New Delhi’s foreign policy goals and plans.”
For some like Richard M. Rossow, senior adviser and India expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “It was fascinating to hear Minister Jaishankar connect the dots, linking the individual steps we had seen India take in foreign policy to a range of wider goals. The timing was critical, as relations between the US and India were going through a turbulent period.”
With Jaishankar in DC, India was to “inform rightly the policymakers and think tank experts on the Capitol” about what’s churning inside India and to tell the US administration that why it should take India as the most reliable strategic partner in trade, defence and security despite the country strongly playing the multi-polar diplomacy card.
Jaishankar himself said, “In this different era, there will be convergence with congruence with none…finding common points to engage with as many power centres will characterise diplomacy at its highest level.” He explained India’s position rightly to America: “For this reason, India finds it perfectly natural to engage a Chinese leader at Wuhan, the Russian one at Sochi and then go on to do the ‘2+2’ meeting of Foreign and Defence Ministers with the US.”
After his meetings with Secretary Pompeo and others in the US administration, he was heard saying, “In a way we were doing stock taking of Prime Minister’s meeting with (President) Donald Trump (in New York) last week.”
For many, EAM Jaishankar was straight, curt at times, even as he interacted with some DC-based Indian media, and was frank in his talks with think tanks’ moderators even if it was “defending Article 370” or the “situation in Kashmir”, to India’s aversion to talking to “terrorist” Pakistan.
Launching a big attack on Pakistan over the latter’s campaign to malign India over Kashmir, Jaishankar slammed the move by saying, “Pakistan’s plans will fail if J&K moves towards development. If we manage to get development going in Kashmir then everything Pakistan has planned for 70 years will come to naught.” The EAM was pointing straight to the “market of terror” Pakistan has developed across the border over the past 60-70 years, encouraging infiltrators into Kashmir to destabilise the Indian territory with ulterior motives.
He rejected any move on India’s part to engage with Pakistan despite it “internationalising the Kashmir issue”. Explaining India’s tough stand, Jaishankar said: “We are not against talking to Pakistan, but we’re against ‘terrorist’ Pakistan.” Any chance of talks with Pakistan anyway seems distant after the showdown between him and Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi at the SAARC luncheon meeting during UNGA in New York.
On one end, at his interaction with the experts at the Atlantic, he raised the “drain of wealth by the Britishers for over two centuries” and put that figure to nearly $45 trillion, nearly nine times the economy India is dreaming to be under PM Modi. On the other, the Indian EAM also minced no words while he staked claim to a UNSC seat, saying “without India at UNSC, UN loses credibility”, as he interacted at the CSIS, a top think tank with a sharp India focus. Jaishankar was interacting with President and CEO of CSIS, John Hamre.
Elaborating more on Jaishankar’s DC mission, Rossow of CSIS says: “He was pointedly connecting India’s foreign policy steps with the previously-unvoiced interest of the wider Indian population. He made the case that the time of ‘treaties and alliances’ may be fading; today and in the future, global issues will each see different groupings of nations align, depending on interests. And that ‘nationalism’ gets a bad rap; there are many forms of nationalism, and nationalism has played a helpful role in many nations, beating back various forms of dangerous extremism.”
Added Kugelman: “Jaishankar wants to highlight how India sees its role in a world that it wants to be in a position to help shape—and is in fact already increasingly shaping. Much of this story is already known to the think tank community, but Jaishankar presumably wanted to reinforce this message—and especially at a moment when there’s been a lot of focus in Washington on the situation in Kashmir. In this regard, Jaishankar’s pitches to multiple think tanks can be seen as a redirect, or an attempt to refocus the attention of thought leaders to India’s strategic thinking and plans when it comes to foreign policy.”
Interestingly, Jaishankar left many in DC think-tank circles guessing when he said that “the US is heading for a change in its posture on Afghanistan”. Will that be opening a much responsible role for India along with the US in war-ravaged Afghanistan? Many see this as a possibility partially due to US’ growing interest in engaging India in strategic alliances and also because Pakistan has been kept in the cold over Afghan peace talks, for now. If that happens India will be firming its status further in the subcontinent against Pakistan.
Giving a peep into Modi 2.0 foreign policy, Jaishankar said that India’s broad approach would be reflected in the primacy of long-term thinking over short-term calculations.
And for Kugelman, perhaps Jaishankar is fit to realise PM Modi’s “global outreach mission”. “If there’s one person that can help operationalize Modi’s global outreach plan, it’s Jaishankar, with his combination of diplomatic experience and intellectual heft. To be sure, Modi himself has been on the forefront of this global engagement strategy—he’s made quite a few foreign trips since he took office as premier in 2014. But Jaishankar, as External Affairs Minister, is the one with the time and mandate to do this the most,” Kugelman told The Sunday Guardian.