Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the BJP workers during a party meeting at the airport in Ahmedabad on 2 October, 2019 | PTI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the BJP workers during a party meeting at the airport in Ahmedabad | Photo: PTI
Text Size:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called US President Donald Trump to wish him a happy new year Tuesday morning, but the press release, issued at 7:25 am, didn’t say what the two leaders discussed, how long the conversation was or what time it took place. Just that bilateral ties had “grown from strength to strength”.

We know that PM Modi is an early riser, so it would have been easy to match the call, before or after his yoga hour, to Trump’s hectic schedule – between assassinating Iran’s most powerful general Qassem Soleimani and threatening to bomb 52 of Iran’s cultural sites.

We also know that neither Trump nor US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “strategic ally” India after Soleimani’s killing, but Pompeo dialled several world leaders, including Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, Germany Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and France Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian.


Also read: If Trump is seeking confrontation with Iran to win election, it’s a big mistake


Congress’ missed chance

If the Congress-led Opposition was a little more alert, it would have by now made a big noise over the US’ public “admonishment” of India. But Rahul Gandhi is missing again and no one else in the Congress party has the courage to pick holes in Modi’s foreign policy in his absence. The Congress, in fact, isn’t really acting as an effective opposition to Modi and ends up helping rather than harming him.

Even Rahul’s mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi doesn’t have the nerve, the interest or the energy to lead the charge – like she once did, when George Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 and the Congress brought Parliament to its feet with its enthusiastic critique of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s description of the India-US relationship as one of “natural allies”.

Sonia Gandhi didn’t rest until Parliament used the Hindi word “ninda” – a cross between “reproach” and “deprecation”, but short of “condemnation” – to critique Bush’s action.


Also read: Oil buyers fear Iraqi supply could also be hit in spillover from Iran crisis


US turns to different ‘ally’

The US’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, on the suspicion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (he didn’t), is probably the worst political decision of the post-Cold War era so far. It distracted America’s good fight from Afghanistan (the US had bombed the Taliban out of Kabul only a year or so before in December 2001), made Iraq’s majority Shia population far more influential, gave Iran greater leverage (Bush hadn’t foreseen that), and pumped up Pakistan’s ability to keep the “good terrorist-bad terrorist” pot boiling as the US allowed it to expand its influence in Afghanistan.

Bush needed Pakistan’s territory to access Afghanistan, so he turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s shenanigans. Today, Pompeo and Trump are once again turning to Pakistan as they seek to withdraw from the longest war America has ever fought abroad, in the hope that Gen Bajwa’s men can help keep the peace in Afghanistan even if that means the Taliban will have a share in it.

Geography, it is true, is Pakistan’s greatest ally. Located on the crosshairs of the Persian Gulf, Inner Asia, and the Indo-Pacific, Pakistan has long leveraged itself to the highest bidder. China has been brought into the mix in an attempt to encircle India and moderate India’s strategic friend and ally, the US.

That’s why Pompeo called Bajwa – and not S. Jaishankar or Modi – to inform him about Soleimani’s assassination. Pakistan’s ability to destroy things, Pompeo knows, is far greater than its ability to build.


Also read: Indian Americans disillusioned with Hindutva can still give moral oxygen to CAA protesters


Beyond Modi, India’s image at stake

Look at it this way. Because India has decided its most important foreign policy partner is going to be the US – first Manmohan Singh signed the 2008 nuclear deal and then Modi cemented it with his “Abki baar, Trump sarkar” slogan in 2019 – New Delhi should have worked the system to demonstrate why Trump could not do without India.

Whether that meant cutting tariffs on Harley Davidson motorbikes and securing a win-win trade deal (which still hasn’t happened), or taking charge of South Asia (which would have entailed talking to Pakistan), or being more assertive with China, India remains a reluctant player.

Combine the prospective instability in the Gulf with a seriously slowing economy in which foreign investors are withdrawing their money and domestic troubles over the citizenship law – and it becomes clear that not just Modi’s foreign policy, but India’s image of being a serious regional power is in jeopardy.

Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar knows this better than most. After all, he cut his pragmatic teeth at Jawaharlal Nehru University in the early 1970s – where he belonged to the tribe called “Free Thinkers” and refused to slavishly ape his friends who kept company with the CPI(M)’s Students’ Federation of India. His condemnation of the violence inside JNU Sunday evening, along with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, is a rare act of courage in the Modi government – even Home Minister Amit Shah has merely ordered an inquiry and not criticised it.


Also read: European leaders scramble to work out a response to escalating US-Iran tensions


Big question coming up

Jaishankar probably realises that India’s reputation is getting battered abroad. He also knows that India cannot follow China’s model of ignoring criticism because unlike China, India’s pronouncements are not backed by a strong economy.

So he swallowed his pride and called Pompeo. There was the “evolving situation” in the Gulf and there were India’s “stakes and concerns” in the region. He also dialled Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, so as to look even-handed. “India remains deeply concerned about the levels of tension” in the region, Jaishankar said.

Certainly, there is the horror tale that Trump might blow up Iran’s ancient monument sites. There is the significant matter of 8.5 million Indians who live and work in the Gulf. There is the Chabahar port in Iran, through which 500,000 tonnes of Indian cargo have transited since it became operational in December 2018. And then there are India’s huge energy needs – the world’s third-largest consumer of oil imports 80 per cent of its needs, and until Trump slapped sanctions against Iran in 2018, Iran was India’s third-largest source, after Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

So, as Trump moves to reshape the Middle East in his own image, like how Bush did in 2003, India is once again confronted with some big foreign policy questions: Where does it go from here? And how does it get there?

ThePrint is now on Telegram. For the best reports & opinion on politics, governance and more, subscribe to ThePrint on Telegram.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel.

20 Comments Share Your Views

20 COMMENTS

  1. No one cares about India in real world politics. Almost all those countries have experience in war like scenarios In the last 3 decades besides India. Inexperienced and inadequate by far, thus not required by the U.S

  2. Hmm…..
    Could it be that Pompeo called Pak and Af as
    1.US has used both these countries as bases for attacks in Gulf
    2.both these countries share borders with Iran, so needed to be prepared for action

    India, on the other hand, does not share a border with Iran and will never let her soil be used to launch any attack by a third party on a fourth party…
    There is no loss if we relook our foreign policy, it must be underway by Jaishankarji.
    Rahul Gandhi is not present during any important happening….
    No point dragging him here…way out of his league
    Let us barter basmati for oil with Iran,band cut out USD altogether.

  3. Disclaimer: I am not a right wing hinduvta supporter! having got that out of the way, I don’t understand the premise of this ‘admonishment’ theory! Did Pompeo call KSA FM, British FM, German FM..?? Too much is being read into this..do we know for a fact that India was NOT in the know?? How can this be viewed as a slight? Infact its good India wasnt put in a spot! Taking a page out of Pakistans propaganda book, Instead we should be discussing why Pompeo called Bajwa and not SMQ! Rub IKs fake democracy in their face.

  4. I just happened to watch Cut the Clutter on this topic and then read this article. I think Shekhar has totally demolished Jyoti’s arguments in his talk. I am not sure if this is Shekhar’s way of letting know Jyoti what he thinks of her writings. But I like her expressions like “So he (JS) swallowed his pride and called Pompeo”! Jyoti should continue to enthrall us with such witty writings in future.

  5. The writer is part of the lefty “narrative building” cabal. Here is an example of how this cabal tries to build a “narrative” out of thin air. This is what they do day in and day out.

  6. Not sure why the author is surprised. For the US, Pakistan has always been a priority, irrespective of whether its Modi or Manmohan Singh or Indira Gandhi ruling India. India needs to stop looking for approval from the West read US/UK and follow the course that suits it best. The only way India can win over the West is by becoming their complete lackey, just like Pakistan. In all probability Trump needs Pakistan to launch further attacks on Iran, so obviously Bajwa needs to be kept in the loop. BYW the Afghanistan war has long ceased to be a ‘good fight’.

  7. Does Trump have any idea of the end-game? These are at best tactics; another blip in the world peace. The phone call made or not is a frivolous way to analyse this event.

    • Don’t we need a sound opposition with a dedicated and committed leadership? Who will fill that void? Obviously the writer is talking about personalities that are expected to play that role. Ideally, new leaders should emerge from the shadow to oppose the government in the Parliament, but that’s not happening too.

      • The voters, the biggest stakeholders, wouldn’t elect new leaders who can oppose the government in the Parliament. Instead they elect those with criminal charges filed against them, illiterate, uneducated, ignorant sadhvis! They even elected a sadhvi like TERROR CHARGED Pragya Thakur Singh, who was out of jail on bail on health ground! DO THE VOTERS, THE OWNERS OF THE COUNTRY, KNOW WHAT THEY WANT?

        • Guess the voters want to give a chance to others. After a pretty long 60+ years of single party and single thought dominance, leading to India being consigned to the bottom rank of nations, maybe the voters want to try someone new. After all it’s not as if Indian voters haven’t voted for criminals, terror accused, murderers, rapists in the past.

          • Rohit Desai is an angry young man. He just needs a bit of experience to understand that there is and never was black and white. It is GREY that dominates this world. Lalu Prasad didn’t emancipate Bihar, though he was a Congress supporter. And is he a criminal? Well, Rohit Desai will answer that and we will take his word for it.

            Rohit – this great young nation had to turn an essential corner. Only then will you have a better benchmark. Let it evolve.

  8. This is not a facetious statement. Instead of India’s Chief Diplomat talking to the rest of the world, making an increasingly feeble and unconvincing case, he should be talking to his own government instead. Sensitising it to how domestic moves are playing out globally. Just take a – relatively – small issue like the violence at JNU. Two members of CCS are practically the quorum to authorise a nuclear strike. Are two tweets between them the best they could rustle up. Washed away completely by talking about a mythical Tukde Tukde gang. The world is a brutal, unforgiving place. Secretary Pompeo represents a superpower. Even his counterparts in Colombo and Kathmandu know what the score is.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here