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.
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.
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.
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.
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?