US President Donald J. Trump’s is a classic case of personality driving speech, if not always policy. His recent incorrect throwaway line on Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to be a mediator on Kashmir, at first glance, should be treated just like that—something to be thrown away, coming as it does from a President who has made big talk the hallmark of his public persona. After all, he is someone who does not seem to follow the rulebook and perhaps has too short an attention span to follow complicated briefings. So without going into whether it was a case of misinterpretation or imagination on the US President’s part, there should not be any doubt in anyone’s mind that the Prime Minister will never ask for third party mediation on Kashmir. This has been India’s stated policy over the decades and is written in as many words in the Simla Agreement. In fact, Pakistan, by constantly seeking third party mediation on Kashmir in its attempt to internationalise the issue, is violating the bilateral agreement and this should be made clear in the strongest of terms every time Islamabad utters the K-word at any forum. This being the case, when External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has stated in Parliament categorically that no such request was made by the Prime Minister, there was no need for the Opposition, in particular the Congress, to play politics by raising a ruckus and stalling the House while demanding that Prime Minister Modi should personally issue a denial himself. In other words, the Indian Prime Minister should stand up in Indian Parliament and call the US President a “liar”. Rahul Gandhi knows the negative impact this will have on India-US relations and that Beijing and Islamabad will approve of such a rift between India and the US at the top. Congress’ strategy of incessantly targeting the PM during his first term backfired spectacularly as was evident from the Lok Sabha 2019 election results. It is time it learnt its lessons and played a constructive role as the Opposition, especially in a matter where the nation’s interests are involved.
The common consensus among experts is that India-US relations are far too important for both countries for these to be derailed by a boastful comment by President Trump or his offer to mediate to solve the Kashmir issue. This is the reason why the US administration went into damage control mode soon after the controversy broke, and firmly placed the Kashmir issue in the bilateral domain. This was also why the K-word did not find any mention in the US-Pakistan joint statement that accompanied Imran Khan’s self-proclaimed “World Cup” winning visit to Washington. It’s increasingly looking like that President Trump fancies himself as an international peacemaker post his forays into the Korean peninsula, although the picture over there is fuzzy until now. According to media reports, in 2016, Trump, in a conversation with then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif too had offered to bring his “superior” negotiating skills to the India-Pakistan table. It’s a different matter that he followed it up with stringent action against Pakistan. The situation is probably different this time. In Trump’s re-election year, Pakistan is promising to give American troops a way out of Afghanistan, lock stock and barrel. What could be a better deliverable to voters for a US President seeking re-election? The consequent Talibanisation of Afghanistan or the fact that the Afghan people are being thrown to the wolves, is the least of businessman Trump’s problems—after all, he is knowingly cutting a deal with the devil. So it is pointless on India’s part to complain that it has been elbowed out of Afghanistan. There is no place for India in Trump’s Af-Pak scheme of things, so let there be no illusions that having boots on the ground in Afghanistan or being in a formal military alliance with the US would have given India some leverage. It’s a different matter though, that the Af-Pak region being a hotbed of radicalism, sooner or later extreme elements will target the “Great Satan”, apart from the region becoming the playing field of Trump’s focus: China. But whether or not Afghanistan returns to the vicious cycle of violence that has been its fate for decades—nay, centuries—is for the future to decide.
For the present, if raising Kashmir was Donald Trump’s way of trying to trick Prime Minister Modi into accepting his mediation in Kashmir, thereby reversing decades of official policy, the gambit has failed. However, it has made Trump small in Indian eyes and has made him out to be either forgetful of the facts or a liar. The US President needs to realise that just like in his democracy, in India too it is the public that is the ultimate driver of policy. If the tide of Indian public opinion turns against him, it may jeopardise India-US relations that are still being crafted with great care by both sides, in spite of decades of mistrust. Bombast or quirky character traits and diplomacy do not go hand in hand.