External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s cancellation of a meeting last week with the foreign affairs committee of the US House of Representatives continues to make waves, with Pete Buttigieg becoming the third US Democratic presidential contender – after Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – saying he is concerned about “political detentions, communications blackouts and other steps being taken by the (Modi) government that could threaten (India’s) long standing democratic traditions.”
Jaishankar cancelled the meeting with Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat who introduced a House resolution that severely criticised India removing Jammu and Kashmir’s special status through Article 370. He told reporters in Washington DC that he had “no interest” in meeting people who had already “made up their minds.”
Clearly, Jaishankar feels justified in refusing to engage with someone who disagrees with him. Jayapal was reportedly gate-crashing a meeting he had asked for and she was not on the agreed list. When Jaishankar found she was coming, he called off the meeting.
The foreign minister’s action is of apiece with the Narendra Modi government’s – and indeed, Donald Trump administration’s – policies. Either you are with me or against me. If you’re with me, fine, let’s chat. If you’re not, don’t call me, I’ll call you.
Going with Modi’s playbook
No one need be surprised by Jaishankar’s assertiveness. He had pointed in this direction at the Ramnath Goenka lecture last month. In response to a question on international criticism on Kashmir, he said, “My reputation is not decided by a newspaper in New York.”
In fact, India’s ambassador to the US, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, was forced to reach out to The New York Times in September to explain India’s position on Kashmir – mere weeks after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote an article on Kashmir.
Certainly, Jaishankar is taking a leaf out of Modi’s book by being dismissive of critical media – and why not, he’s part of the PM’s inner circle. Remember, Modi has held only one press conference since he came to power five years ago, preferring to give one-on-one interviews instead.
Jaishankar also believes, rightly, that the noisy Democrats who control the House of Representatives cannot make much difference to the India-US relationship as long as Republican President Donald Trump is in power – he is likely betting that Trump will be elected president again in 2020.
Now, this is all very well when the going is good – when the economy is doing well, when people are largely satisfied with Modi government’s leadership and when the certainty of power is, well, certain.
Listening to the critics
Both India and the US are sharply polarised societies today, around Modi and Trump, respectively. But even Modi couldn’t have dreamt, as he won 303 seats this May in the Lok Sabha election, that he would lose state after state – Jharkhand is the fifth in the last one year – and that despite regional parties voting in favour of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, several like Bihar’s Janata Dal (United) and Punjab’s Akali Dal are now turning tail.
What if 2020 sees a presidential upset in America? Will Jaishankar’s refusal to engage with America’s Democrats today upset the bipartisan nature of the Indo-US relationship?
Jaishankar will argue that his job is not to foretell the future. That he has to push India’s interests today and not one year from now. But that is a limited argument, best suited to him when he was foreign secretary, and certainly one he shouldn’t make now as Foreign Minister.
As the representative of the world’s largest democracy, it wouldn’t have hurt to hear a critic, even one of Indian origin. It might be useful to remember that Democrat members of the US Congress, while much more sensitive to human rights issues in Kashmir and elsewhere, have contributed as much to the pursuit of the India-US relationship as their Republican counterparts.
In 2005, then Senators Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar co-sponsored the Naval Vessels Transfer Act that led to India’s acquisition of the first US-built warship – Biden is now the leading Democrat presidential contender. And in 2008, when the US Congress passed the Indo-US nuclear agreement, none other than Democrat Eliot Engel and Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen led the way.
As the head of the House foreign affairs committee, it is the same Eliot Engel who last week allowed Pramila Jayapal into the meeting with Jaishankar that never took place.
Some say Engel knew she was coming, some say he didn’t. Whatever the truth, fact is that Indian diplomats and political leaders have not been able to convince or effectively project their point of view or worse, failed to listen to critical voices, at least in one part of the US Congress.
Safe, for now
Perhaps, India remains smug about the fact that Modi isn’t that different from most of the world’s strong leaders – Trump, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro (chief guest for Republic Day 2020), Boris Johnson, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Xi Jinping or Mohammed bin Salman, take your pick.
At the UN Security Council discussion, also last week, China was forced to postpone a discussion on Kashmir, when the other permanent members were shown the mirror – certainly, none of those nations, especially Trump’s America, can be described as picture postcard-worthy especially on citizenship issues and treating illegal immigrants with respect.
So, for the time being, Modi and Jaishankar seem safe. Global opprobrium either on Kashmir or CAA or NRC, it appears, remains unlikely.
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