Shrewd Diplomacy: Modi displayed India’s clout in first foreign trip after stripping Kashmir of special status

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U.S. President Donald Trump meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for bilateral talks during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” couldn’t have rung more true than when President Donald Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a spontaneous high-five moment Aug. 26, with hand-slapping and guffaws captured and transmitted around the world from Biarritz, France on the sidelines of the G 7 meetings.

It was the culmination of a successful three-country visit of the Indian leader ostensibly pre-planned, but extremely opportune, to portray international support for India despite the turmoil in Kashmir resulting from the Modi government revoking Jammu & Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and 35 A, and creating two Union Territories out of Jammu-Kashmir, and Ladakh.

The loud protests and hand-wringing, accompanied by bombastic threats, military and nuclear, emanating from Islamabad, as well as criticism of the move from sections of India’s own influencers, and largely negative Western media coverage of Indian security forces patrolling the streets with guns and barbed wire, appeared to become just background noise to the images emerging of Modi on his trip to France, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron hugging at the airport, Modi receiving the highest civilian award from the King of United Arab Emirates, and the piece de resistance – the final press briefing where Trump and Modi oozed a relaxed bonhomie

Trump lightened the mood at the Biarritz press briefing where Modi spoke through a translator, telling media, “He (Modi) actually speaks great English – he just doesn’t want to talk to you,” at which point Modi guffawed and the two leaders clasped hands briefly and Modi slapped Trump’s hand setting social media atwitter.

But it was not all about photo-ops and hugs and smiles. The formal statement issued after the U.S.-India bilateral made a substantive advance over previous U.S. administration pronouncement during the Trump era.

For the first time the Trump administration conceded India’s important role in Afghanistan, something that was repeated like a mantra during the Obama years.

In a readout on what transpired at the bilateral meeting between Trump and Modi, the White House said, “The two leaders discussed ways to broaden their strategic partnership and greatly increase trade between the United States and India. President Trump reaffirmed the need for dialogue between India and Pakistan to reduce tensions and acknowledged India’s role as a critical partner in Afghanistan.”

“That formal statement was a victory,” said Walter Andersen, former senior State Department official, veteran India expert and author of the book “Messengers of Hindu Nationalism: How the RSS Reshaped India.”

“In effect Trump is saying India has a role in Afghanistan. This is huge, He’s never said that before. That’s news,” Andersen enthused.

At the press briefing Aug. 26, before they went into the bilateral, Modi firmly restated New Delhi’s position that any discussion with Pakistan that related to Kashmir is totally bilateral in effect implying New Delhi neither needed nor would brook international or U.S. mediation.

“It’s the economy, stupid”

An apt interpretation of what transpired during Modi’s trip abroad was the potential economic giant of South Asia and its upward growth trajectory, albeit with some hiccups, sending the message – ‘don’t mess with us’. Much of Modi’s responses during the press briefing with Trump emphasized trade and commercial relations.

Trump’s backing down on offering to mediate was also notable. “Well, we spoke last night about Kashmir. And the Prime Minister really feels he has it under control,” Trump said.

Meanwhile, Modi steered the India-Pakistan divide to economic issues as well – “Between India and Pakistan, there are many bilateral issues.  And after Minister Imran Khan became the Prime Minister of Pakistan, … I told him that Pakistan needs to fight poverty; India too.  Pakistan needs to fight illiteracy; India too.  Pakistan needs to fight disease; India too.”

Andersen contends “India is too important to these countries for them to become nasty.” That applies to Middle Eastern nations as well as Washington.

Not only does India have a huge market, it has a large and active diaspora, analysts note, something Modi made mention of during the press conference in Biarritz.

Plus, experts point to the obvious – India has a formidable navy and armed forces to whom France would want to sell every kind of armament; a strategic position in the Indo-Pacific; great relations with Iran and other Middle Eastern countries; and Sunni-majority nations also want to keep India on their side.

Not only that, the Trump administration has been moving to make a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and for New Delhi it is imperative that India be included in any discussion on Kabul’s fate. But so far, at least during the last three years of the Trump administration, that made no headway. But at the bilateral, the course appears to have shifted.

“India has long worried that Trump will seek a hasty deal that will justify an American exit from Afghanistan well before the 2020 U.S. elections, as he has promised to his own constituents,” notes Professor Christine Fair in her definitive article on the history of Kashmir post-Independence (India’s Move In Kashmir: Unpacking the Domestic and International Motivations and Implications, Lawfareblog.com).

Just days later however, the Taliban deal appears to be going nowhere with Trump now saying he would leave more than 8.000 well-equipped American personnel in Afghanistan, a position unacceptable to the Taliban.

But the impending Taliban deal may have driven India to make the “bold move” in rescinding Kashmir’s special status, according to Fair. And it is difficult to predict what may happen in the near future because Kashmir is in lockdown and may remain that way for some months, Fair says.

The desire for a Taliban deal led the American President to even promise Pakistan’s Khan during the latter’s recent visit to Washington, that Modi had asked him to mediate on Kashmir, a statement promptly denied categorically by New Delhi.

As for the other important international actors, in early August, despite later instigating a closed door UN Security Council meeting on Kashmir, China had said Islamabad must resolve the Kashmir issue with India peacefully and according to the bilateral agreement. Russia, predictably, declared Kashmir was a bilateral issue a couple of days ago. Needless to note, China has no locus standi on either rights issues or governance what with its treatment of Uighurs, and the evolving situation in Hong Kong where thousands of protesters are demonstrating against Beijing’s hegemony.

While Pakistan was already the bad boy in the international community, Modi’s foreign tour, in effect, has further isolated Islamabad, according to analysts. And as Fair notes, Pakistan has no leg to stand on with the fate of minorities in that country constantly in jeopardy, and power in the hands of the military.

Conclusion

Focusing just on the foreign trip without the myriad other impinging factors, Modi did score a victory by removing Kashmir from the front burner for several days, and leaning on India’s economic standing and its role as a global leader. In effect, Modi succeeded in projecting the image that while Pakistan was in its neighborhood, New Delhi existed at some other level than its neighbor.

“Excellent meeting with@POTUS @realDonaldTrump ! We had useful discussions on bilateral matters. We agreed to address trade issues for mutual benefit soon. Looking forward to expand cooperation as large democracies for the benefit of our citizens and global peace and prosperity,” Modi tweeted accompanied by the iconic image of the two leaders enjoying a private joke in public, holding hands as they laughed.

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