New Delhi: In a relentless attempt to define India’s changing foreign policy, Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar went on a lecture spree in the US last week, addressing a plethora of think-tanks and business lobby groups in every nook and corner of the American capital.
Jaishankar, who had gone to the US on 21 September with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, returned on 4 October, answered a bevy of questions posed by Americans who work in the US-India corridor. The questions were being asked ever since Modi and the BJP won a massive re-election victory in May this year.
On Modi’s visit to the US, there was burgeoning anxiety from these think-tanks and business bodies, especially since 5 August, when India scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and bifurcated the state into two union territories.
In addition to these groups, Jaishankar also met key Trump administration figures, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and newly-appointed National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.
ThePrint trawls through the minister’s speeches to find highlights that define what India’s foreign policy will be like going forward.
‘Kashmir was in a mess before 5 August’
The continuing lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir took centrestage in almost all of Jaishankar’s interactions in Washington, though he insisted Kashmir wasn’t the central issue between India and Pakistan.
“I don’t think the fundamental issue between India and Pakistan is Kashmir; I think it is part of the issues between us. The 26/11 attacks, Parliament attacks… These had nothing to do with Kashmir,” Jaishankar told the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
Referring to the scrapping of Article 370, the minister said: “Pre-5 August Kashmir was in a mess. The difficulties of Kashmir had not started on 5 August. 5 August is a way of dealing with those difficulties… What was meant to be a bridge became a barrier.”
He said the Modi government took this step to be able to push investments and economic activities into Kashmir and change the social landscape there.
“We realise it is not an easy exercise because we realise there are deep vested interests which will resist… Our first concern was that there would be violence, that there would be demonstrations, terrorists would use these demonstrations,” he said.
“We had the experience of 2016, when a self-advertised terrorist cult figure was killed — a gentleman called Burhan Wani. After that, there was spike in violence and about 50-plus people lost their lives. So, the intention this time was to manage the situation without the loss of lives, so the restrictions were done to prevent that. Now, as the situation stabilises, I think a lot of those restrictions will be rolled back,” he said.
Jaishankar insisted that Kashmir “shouldn’t be seen through a communal lens”.
But this wasn’t the only interaction where the issue came up. At the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jaishankar said: “Many of the restrictions that have been imposed are being done to ensure that there is no loss of life. We have seen how social media and the internet have been used to radicalise people.”
At CSIS, the minister said: “The economic costs of the status quo (in Kashmir) were visible in the absence of entrepreneurship and shortage of job opportunities. The social costs were even starker, in discrimination against women, in lack of protection for juveniles, in the refusal to apply affirmative action, and in denial of the right to information, education and work. All this added up to security costs as the resulting disaffection fed separatism and fuelled a neighbour’s terrorism.”
At the Cosmos Club, he spoke on the history of Article 370 and how it made an entry into the Indian Constitution as a temporary provision.
“The alignment (of J&K with other Indian states) got slower, and in the last 20-30 years, everything that was socially progressive in other states did not take place in J&K… This became a national security issue even as separatism started gaining ground there. Our neighbour has a vested interest there in the political setup, and has embedded terrorists of all kinds,” he said.
‘Pakistan is a challenging neighbour’
In his speech at the Asia Society, Jaishankar said India has no problem talking to Pakistan, but it has a problem talking to “Terroristan”, stressing on the fact that Islamabad has created an entire industry of terrorism to deal with the Kashmir issue.
“Between both the neighbours we do not have a normal history… Pakistan is a challenging neighbour,” he said in response to a question at the CFR, adding that Pakistan is a country that “follows a policy of implausible deniability”.
“Terrorism in their eye is a legitimate tool of statecraft… You have terrorism in different parts of the world, but there’s no part of the world where a country uses it consciously, deliberately, as a large-scale industry against its neighbour,” Jaishankar said.
The minister also ruled out cricket diplomacy, which once was regarded as a major component of the confidence-building measures between both countries.
“It is very difficult in real life to separate issues… If the dominant narrative of the relationship is of terrorism, suicide bombings, violence, and then you say ‘OK guys, tea-break, let’s go and play cricket’, I think that is a hard narrative to sell to people. I would give the message that you cannot do terrorism at night and it’s ‘business as usual’ by day,” he said.
However, asked if India considers Pakistan its “permanent enemy”, Jaishankar said “no neighbour can ever give up on a neighbour”.
“The Pakistanis need to change for themselves… I used to be concerned about Pakistan, I still am, but I am now concerned for Pakistan as well,” he said.
India-US ties and the trade deal
During PM Modi’s bilateral with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on 24 September, there were signals that a limited trade deal might be announced. But it did not fructify.
Addressing the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jaishankar said most of the trade disputes between India and the US are “resolvable in the near term” and ruled out pushing the issue for the next American administration to deal with.
“In our business, diplomacy, timing is very critical, but I would not, I would say as a default position, kick my problems down the road because then they tend to accumulate. Certainly, on the trade side, we have seen that over many years. There are issues which I remember from 20 years ago which are still being debated in many ways,” the minister said.
Interestingly, Jaishankar made it quite clear to the US that India may sign the mega trade pact Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by the end of this year. RCEP is being negotiated between the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their trading partners China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
“I would say at the moment, the strongest prospect of further opening up (of the Indian market) appears to lie in the RCEP negotiations … That would be a step forward. After that, whom would we look to for a limited or full FTA… I think that remains an open question,” he said at the CFR.
Jaishankar also addressed two business lobbies while in Washington — the US-India Business Council (USIBC) and the US India Strategic and Partnership Forum (USISPF).
At the USISPF event, Jaishankar also spoke about India’s relationship with Iran, saying the latter is not disappointed that India has stopped procuring oil from it.
“There is a larger global situation in which they are operating, we are operating. In the world that I inhabit, we frankly understand each other’s compulsions and possibilities,” Jaishankar said.
He had also touched upon India and Iran’s strong political and cultural relationship at the CSIS.
‘Relationship with China is stable, mature’
In almost all his speeches, Jaishankar highlighted that India enjoys “stable” as well as “mature” ties with China, its second largest trade partner and largest neighbour. He said the countries deal with every issue bilaterally.
“China’s influence has grown over many years… We have our issues, we know that. But today it is a stable relationship. It is a very mature relationship. It is not a relationship that has given cause of anxiety to the world for many years,” he said at the CFR.
At The Heritage Foundation, Jaishankar said: “We actually, essentially handle the China relationship bilaterally. We believe that’s frankly the best way of moving forward.”
On the issue of whether India will opt for China’s Huawei for the roll-out of 5G technology, Jaishankar said: “We don’t see 5G as a political problem; for us, 5G is a telecom issue. And we will make whatever decisions we have to at the right time on the merits of that particular decision.”
‘British rule has not made India anti-West’
Jaishankar also touched upon the 190 years of British rule in India, saying though they took $45 trillion out of India, India’s relationship with the West has never been one of anti-West nationalism. “If it was not cordial, it was certainly not frictional,” he said at the Atlantic Council.
He also said India would become the world’s third-largest economy by 2030.
“We will be the most populous country in less than the next five years. The relationship between West and India will now be redefined,” he told the Atlantic Council.
At The Heritage Foundation, Jaishankar also said India’s economic progress is closely linked with the rise of nationalism.
“Here is the difference, nationalism has a certain connotation in Europe which is not necessarily positive, but I think in Asia, nationalism is seen very much as a sort of natural corollary to economic progress… Almost like you’re independent, you progress, you are prosperous and nationalism comes with all of that,” he said.