With Trump not coming, India-Pak talks can wait

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Officials give a variety of reasons, the thread being the cooling of India-US relations as we pursue an “independent” foreign policy.

US President Donald Trump’s rejection of India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to visit the country as the Republic Day chief guest (on January 26, 2019) was an unnecessary self-inflicted wound by Modi and a humiliation for India. Trump, who otherwise likes parades – he wanted one of his own till the idea was rejected by his military – deliberately snubbed us to send a message. His lame excuse of being too busy with a ‘state of the union’ address did not stop Barack Obama from visiting in 2015. Obviously, India ought to have waited for a confirmation before leaking the news. The timing could not be worse for Modi, whose tenure is finally unravelling, what with his problems with Constitutional authorities and facing a struggle in upcoming assembly elections.

Officials give a variety of reasons, the thread being the cooling of India-US relations as we pursue an “independent” foreign policy. This is bunkum. We have sought closer defence ties, be it the joint military exercises aimed primarily against China, or the logistics exchange agreement, or simply regular strategic discussions. The US establishment moves methodically but deliberately; the trajectory of our coming together will continue long after Trump is gone. Unlike the pre-1991 era when India was “non-aligned”, we are now resolutely with the US. The talk of an independent policy or a souring is a fig-leaf to camouflage Modi’s current embarrassment.

Officials speculate that Trump is upset over India’s $5 billion purchase of S-400 air defence missile system from Russia. (It has a 400-km range, like China’s.) America had warned that the purchase contravened its sanctions against Russia, though India had hoped for a waiver. America had tried a carrot-and-stick approach – threatening to not sell Predator drones, while airing speculation that the US could sell F-16 Falcon fighter jets to India. None of this worked. The S-400 purchase might have helped dissuade Trump from visiting, but it was hardly a tipping point.

America’s sanction against Iran, which go into effect this week, is also cited as a factor. As these are not UN sanctions, countries have grumbled of US arm-twisting. India has a healthy commercial relationship with Iran, where it makes rupee purchases of crude. It is all the more critical when international prices hover around the $80 per barrel while the rupee plummets below 73 per dollar. The scenario has not yet come to pass, so it is hardly a factor in Trump’s decision to not visit.

More than these commercial transactions, Trump’s main and foremost concern is pulling his troops out of Afghanistan. He has no time for nuance, or for the Pentagon’s arguments, or even for what a withdrawal might mean for America’s image around the world; “America First” means he doesn’t care. Withdrawal is the singular directive he has given his generals.

Left to Trump, he would allow the hardline Pushtun Taleban to take over the country as US troops departed. The Taleban is the strongest armed force, constantly threatening the regime of President Ashraf Ghani who is propped up by the international community.

The US is pressuring Pakistan, by holding back aid, etc. Pakistan has responded by releasing two key leaders. Its army, however, wants something in return for full cooperation. It wants India back on the negotiating table. The Americans have thus been trying to get India on board. India has tried to ease this pressure with meaningless counter-measures, like the appointment a year back of former Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma as the Kashmir interlocutor. He has achieved nothing, evidence of the seriousness with which the government treated his appointment.

When Imran Khan became prime minister of Pakistan, he offered to take two steps for every step India took towards better relations. But the manner in which India reacted showed Modi’s lack of interest in engaging Pakistan. Now with the upcoming assembly elections and the countdown to the 2019 parliamentary election, there is little chance that Modi will offer an olive branch to Pakistan; it undermines the only electoral strategy he has left, of communal polarisation of voters.

If Pakistan can’t get what it wants, it has little incentive to give Trump what he wants; and if Trump can’t get what he wants, he is unlikely to give Modi what he wants. Someone will replace Trump as Republic Day guest, though they’ll know they weren’t the first choice. Worst of all, the egg on Modi’s face was easily avoidable.

Aditya Sinha is a senior journalist based in India

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