Caught in geopolitical churn, PM Narendra Modi forced to dial back

All prime ministers seek and work towards a successful foreign visit, especially when it is to Washington DC
Last Updated 27 June 2021, 06:39 IST

Weeks before the Obama administration appointed Richard Holbrooke as the Special Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2009, the then foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee conveyed in unequivocal terms to US Ambassador David Mulford that any move to include Kashmir, as part of a broad regional mandate, in Holbrooke’s brief would be “unacceptable”. US diplomatic cables leaked two years later showed that foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon told US Undersecretary Bill Burns that “Kashmir is different; we do not want to feed the notion that the US is messing about in Kashmir.” Such was the UPA government’s vehemence that Mukherjee said that “India was content that Vice President-elect [Joe] Biden [did] not extend his trip beyond Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Biden is now the US President, and Bill Burns his Director of the CIA, closely involved with the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Earlier this month, during a Congressional hearing on ‘Democracy in the Indo-Pacific’, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Dean Thompson was asked pointed questions by Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan on Kashmir. Thompson’s reply was telling: “Kashmir is one area where we have urged them to return to normalcy as quickly as possible. We’ve seen some steps taken: the release of prisoners, the restoration of 4G access, things of that nature. There are other -- electoral -- steps we’d like to see them take and that we have encouraged them to do and will continue to do so.”

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It can’t be sheer coincidence that when PM Narendra Modi met the leaders of mainstream political parties of J&K on Thursday, his only focus was on pushing for some electoral steps in the Union Territory. He tweeted, “Our priority is to strengthen grassroots democracy in J&K. Delimitation has to happen at a quick pace so that polls can happen and J&K gets an elected Government that gives strength to J&K’s development trajectory.” The Biden administration would be pleased with that statement from Modi. It would also remove any irritant that could potentially trip Modi’s proposed visit to the US this fall, pandemic permitting, for his first in-person meeting with Biden.

All prime ministers seek and work towards a successful foreign visit, especially when it is to Washington DC. But there is an additional factor at play now. In his diplomatic engagements so far, Modi has focused on the politics of persona, and projected his personal chemistry with other global leaders as the basis of India’s geopolitical strength. When it comes to the US, he has taken extra care to showcase the optics of his relationship with Presidents Obama and Trump to feed the BJP’s domestic political narrative of Modi having the US President wrapped around his little finger. To sustain that narrative built over the last seven years, ensuring a thumping reception for Modi at the White House is a political imperative. Modi’s sudden U-turn with an invite to the Kashmiri leaders who had been shunned and kept behind bars by him only months ago must be seen in that context.

Also read: 15 ex-IPS officers laud Modi govt's action in J&K, 'exemplary' all-party meet in open letter

It is no secret that the Modi government has been at the receiving end of the Biden administration’s strident advocacy of democratic principles and human rights concerns, though these tough conversations have taken place behind closed doors so far. While the sharp decline in India’s democratic credentials overall since 2014 have been recorded globally, Kashmir is the starkest example of that corrosion. Moreover, Kashmir has a certain resonance in Washington, which has often caused discomfiture to Indian diplomats. Every time President Trump met Pakistan PM Imran Khan, he would offer to mediate on Kashmir – which would be either politely ignored or sidestepped by India. It was after the US Congressional committee hearing on Kashmir in 2019 that Foreign Minister Jaishankar boycotted a meeting with Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, which led to a tweet of protest from the then Senator and current Vice President Kamala Harris. Despite ending the internet shutdown and releasing political prisoners, the Modi government has struggled to clinch the argument on Kashmir with the White House and on Capitol Hill.

Read: BJP top brass hold meeting to discuss poll strategy ahead of multiple state elections

The US pressure on Kashmir is directly linked to Delhi’s perceived weakness in dealing with China during the border crisis in Ladakh. The increasing power gap between China and India has been exacerbated by a mishandling of the pandemic. This means that Delhi needs US support and can no longer publicly rebuff US officials when they make statements on Kashmir. After August 2019, China has raised the Kashmir issue at global forums, and many see the Chinese ingress in Ladakh as a response to the Modi government’s August 2019 decisions.

The ongoing Ladakh border crisis has been transformative in another way. Faced with a two-front collusive military threat, India started back-channel talks with Pakistan, which involved the UAE. Those talks led to a restoration of ceasefire on the Line of Control in J&K, but the negotiations also involved some concessions from the Modi government on Kashmir, which were demanded by Pakistan to create an ‘enabling environment’. As per reliable reports in Pakistani media, Islamabad’s primary interest at this stage is that “Kashmir gets back its statehood and India agrees not to bring about any demographic changes.” Pakistan foreign ministry’s official response to Thursday’s meeting also centred around statehood for J&K.

The Modi government, however, has not walked the full distance on this demand publicly. On the contrary, at the meeting on Thursday, Modi said that statehood would be restored “at an appropriate time.” Home Minister Amit Shah’s post-meeting tweet that “The future of Jammu and Kashmir was discussed and the delimitation exercise and peaceful elections are important milestones in restoring statehood as promised in parliament” elucidated that statehood would only follow elections in a restricted democratic setup in the government’s scheme of things.

The government’s refusal to restore statehood to J&K suggests that the backchannel talks with Pakistan have stalled, as Islamabad focuses on US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Though Pakistan has, for now, completely halted cross-LoC infiltration and militancy in Kashmir is now home-grown, Delhi knows that the US withdrawal is bound to have an impact on Kashmir’s security situation. With Taliban’s return to centre-stage in Afghanistan, Islamabad’s clout in the region will rise. As the US seeks Pakistan’s support, such as for security bases in that country, it is bound to further complicate matters for India, especially on Kashmir.

The Modi government is being pulled apart by its external projection of a liberal democracy in the Nehruvian mould and by the reality of its domestic politics which is majoritarian and authoritarian. This contradiction has amplified the challenges thrown up in this period of deep geopolitical churn. Battered by the second wave of the pandemic during a severe economic downturn, a weakened government has no choice but to accept geopolitical realities and try to cut its losses by responding to external pressure. That is how far things have moved since 2009. Modi’s meeting with Kashmiri parties on Thursday was not about a summer thaw in the chill of the Valley. If anything, it was an acknowledgement of this cold reality.

(The writer is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research)

(Published 26 June 2021, 18:19 IST)

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