The Narendra Modi government has unveiled a number of initiatives over the last week, all pointing to the culmination of one big goal: The likely visit of US President Donald Trump to Delhi later in February.
First, there was the visit of a group of envoys, including US ambassador to India Kenneth Juster, to Jammu and Kashmir a fortnight ago. It is believed that the envoys, including Juster, found the situation in Kashmir far less critical than what they had expected it to be.
Second, New Delhi restored internet services on pre-paid mobile phones in some parts of the union territory, and also seemed to address the concerns raised by the US State Department by releasing some political leaders who have been under “detention” since August 2019.
SCO Summits hold promises
Late last week, Delhi also opened the possibility of inviting Pakistan to the heads of government summit under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), likely to be held in the capital in October.
But before that, as members of the China-led eight-nation bloc, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan will both be present at the July SCO summit in St Petersburg, Russia. If they shake hands, it could signal to the world the beginning of a thaw. Delhi is certainly wondering how to bring normalcy in ties without compromising its own aggressive position on Pakistan.
But nothing has chuffed the Indian establishment as much as the positive reports emanating from the group of envoys that visited Jammu and Kashmir last week. In Srinagar, the diplomats met a variety of second-rung political leaders as well as a handpicked group of civil society activists and media persons. As many as nine second-rung political leaders were released late last week.
All three former chief ministers of J&K – sitting MP from Srinagar Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti – remained under house arrest during the visit of these envoys.
According to one diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “the situation in the union territory was not ideal, but much better than expected.” The diplomat pointed out that his country wasn’t going to ignore the invite by New Delhi to visit J&K after repeatedly requesting the Modi government to allow the situation there to be assessed first-hand.
Kashmir narrative is changing
Officials in the Modi government, meanwhile, admit that the clampdown on civil liberties is not ideal but they insist that it has come at the cost of reduced violence. “This is a positive measure. Blood or protests on the streets is hardly calculated to inspire confidence,” officials say, insisting that being able to limit casualties is their biggest success.
Conscious that his image is taking a battering in the international community, both over Kashmir and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, PM Modi is believed to have asked for a step-by-step easing of the situation in Kashmir. (On the issue of CAA being linked to the NRC, the PM had issued a denial at a rally in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan about a month ago.)
Clearly then, Trump’s visit offers many possibilities to Modi in the current scenario. It will certainly bolster his position at home when the world’s most powerful man comes and gives him a hug – or vice-versa. At least for a few days, images and reports of anti-CAA protests will be off the news pages.
As for the Kashmir narrative, releasing the three former chief ministers on the eve of Trump’s visit – if and when the two things happen – could bring a win-win situation for both Modi and Trump.
A lot riding on Trump visit
In India, the possibility of a limited trade deal, as well as a civil aviation deal, is on the cards; while in Kabul, Trump may be witness to a power-sharing arrangement between the US and the Taliban, before an intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban takes place in Norway.
Dates for signing of the deal, as well as Trump’s visit, are still being worked out because Trump’s impeachment trial is underway. It has moved from the House of Representatives, where it has been passed, to the Senate, where the Republicans are in a majority and is likely to be struck down.
Certainly, Trump’s stakes are high in Afghanistan. He will fulfill his major campaign promise by withdrawing troops from that country and ending America’s longest war. That is why the impending agreement between the US and the Taliban, for which both Russia and Pakistan are on board as confirmed by Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov in an interview with ThePrint – is so important.
Kabulov also pointed out that Pakistan’s willingness to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table had elevated its importance among the Americans. The US point-person on South Asia, Alice Wells, certainly thinks so, although she is equally aware of Pakistan’s ability to make mischief right until the bitter end.
Wells began a four-day visit to Pakistan Sunday, days after her visit to Delhi, where she made clear that “fulfilling the potential” of a US-Pakistan relationship would be dependent on Pakistan taking “sustainable and irreversible action” against terror groups that have the ability and the influence to sabotage the impending US-Taliban agreement.
That’s why a Trump visit is important to the region. If and when it happens, it will allow all sides to declare victory. This is also why it is such a big secret – nothing is certain until it is signed and sealed.