By Harihar Swarup
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest encounter with US President Donald Trump in France laid to rest, for the time being, the threat of the US inserting itself into India-Pakistan. During media interaction in advance of the talks, Modi was direct, explicit and firm in conveying that whatever issues divided India and Pakistan, they would be resolved bilaterally; that there was no need to bother third countries on this score.
In his remarks, Trump seemed to accept that India and Pakistan could sort out their differences themselves. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, who briefed the media after conclusion of talks, said that the two leaders focused on trade and energy related issues, but did not discuss Kashmir. However, in media interaction, trump said he had discussed the issue in detail with Modi the previous evening and that latter conveyed that he had situation in the valley under control. What this suggests is that, like other major powers, except China, the US is willing to give India a fairly long rope in managing the fall out from the decision to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution.
But this may change if Delhi’s attempt to restore normalcy in the Valley falters, local leaders and political figures continue to remain under detention, and, worse, there is an outbreak of violence inviting punitive and harsh riposte. Modi’s remarks seem to convey a willingness to engage in a dialogue with Pakistan. He did not reiterate, as he could have, the current Indian position that the talks can only take place if Pakistan abandons cross-border terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Is this omission a signal that India is now open to dialogue, perhaps knowing fully well that after August 5, it is Pakistan, which may find it politically difficult to respond? The shoe may be now on the other foot.
For Trump, the issue of trade is a high priority, and this would have figured prominently in talks. However, no details have been shared so far. The way to Trump’s heart seems to lie through trade. Some judicious and selective concessions by India on the import of US products would be a good move. This would be politically well timed since US-China trade war appears to be escalating. Shared concern over China remain the strongest glue anchoring the Indo-US relations, and that has not changed, and is unlikely to in the foreseeable future.
There are two regional issues on which US action could have a major collateral impact on India. One relates to the US plan for a withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan after reaching a peace agreement with the Taliban. The other relates to the situation in the gulf as a result of rising tensions between the US and Iran. The US efforts to bring the Taliban into Afghanistan’s ruling dispensation, which will likely open the door to an eventual Taliban takeover, will impact adversely on India’s interest. Pakistan will almost certainly use its protégés to severely reduce, if not eliminate, Indian presence and engagement in the country, overturning the significant political India has built in the past decade and more. With the latest events in Kashmir, Pakistan’s determination to seek revenge through Afghanistan will intensify. Even if Indian concerns have been conveyed to Trump, it is unlikely that the inexorable train of events will alter.
India has even greater concerns related to the developments in gulf region. Modi’s visits to UAE and Bahrain, in between his foray into Paris reflect the salience the region now occupies in Indian calculations. The region remains in dispensable to India’s energy security as a source of oil and gas supplies. The welfare of six million or more Indians living and working in the region is also a major region.
Both these critical interests would be severely affected if US actions in the Gulf result in political turmoil and disruption of energy flows to India. Iran may attempt to block the straits of Hormuz if tensions escalate. The US has, in the past decade emerged as a major oil and gas exporter. It will only marginally impacted if energy supplies from the Gulf are disrupted. In this respect, India has the same interest as European countries do: that is to avoid a further slide in Iran-US relations and salvage the Iran nuclear deal, if possible. The unexpected appearance of Iranian Foreign Minister in France is significant, because it could have enabled him to have a discreet dialogue with US officials accompanying Trump. It is in India’s interest to reinforce European efforts in this regard.
The Modi-Trump meeting, and its generally positive tone is a counterpoint to a growing perception influential sections of the US that India has oversold, that it is neither the commercial promise it was made out to be, nor it is likely to be a strong and capable power to help countervail Chinese influence in Indo-Pacific region. But a favourable perception can only be sustained if India’s economy regains its dynamism, and this, in turn, enables a study and significant growth in our defence capabilities. Above all, nothing should be done to erode the international capital the country enjoys as a vibrant and plural democracy.