With bated breath we await sunrise in Washington DC to see what President Donald Trump will do next. Will he double down on his claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked him to mediate on Kashmir? Will he be enraged that the Ministry of External Affairs has tagged him and effectively said he lied, and then repeated it in Parliament today?
We have seen @POTUS‘s remarks to the press that he is ready to mediate, if requested by India & Pakistan, on Kashmir issue. No such request has been made by PM @narendramodi to US President. It has been India’s consistent position…1/2
— Raveesh Kumar (@MEAIndia) July 22, 2019
Let’s be clear about two things: first, this will blow over until the next storm in a tea cup; and second, no country – except Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar – has found reliable ways to deal with Trump. Let us be equally clear that Modi has never asked Trump or any external interloper to interfere in bilateral matters. Modi is a stickler for rules and follows the brief his bureaucrats prepare for him to the T. Trump is no one’s fool, although the Democrats would like you to believe that. Assuming that Trump is a fool is the biggest mistake one can make, something the Democrats don’t seem to understand even after their rout in the 2016 US presidential election.
That said, there is no doubt Trump is lying (no, he didn’t misunderstand what Modi may or may not have told him; he is deliberately lying). The question is why? We should be worrying not about ‘what’ he said (as Indians are at the moment), but ‘why’ he said it. The ‘what’ is not important, the ‘why’ is critical. I have discussed the more macro reasons here, but what we need to do now is understand how this episode will play out.
Let us be clear, the Indian economy is in doldrums, and the standard Indian practice has been to play ostrich at home, and the perpetually-petulant-victim abroad. In effect, our failure at domestic policy leaves our diplomats with few choices – none of them viable. But what is inexcusable is that they have either failed to read the signs in advance or haven’t been heard at the top.
Since Barack Obama’s second term (2012-16), the signs of India fatigue have only been growing, be it on patents, or a host of other issues. Trump has simply distilled that fatigue and accelerated its effects. To start with, he refused to come to India for the Republic Day celebrations citing “scheduling constraints”. That he took a month to decline the invitation should make it clear that there were no prior commitments, just higher priorities.
He has travelled to Saudi Arabia and executed a remarkable about-turn of his Saudi hate. The Saudis had to sign an agreement for US$110 billion in immediate weapons purchases with a total of US$350 billion committed over 10 years. Trump then shifted his attack to Qatar, calling it “a funder of terrorism at a very high level”. The Qataris had to buy their way out, agreeing to spend billions of dollars within months, be it in weapons purchases or oil refining. The three incidents – turning down India’s invitation, travelling to Saudi Arabia, and training and then un-training his guns on Qatar – should have flashed warning signs to India.
Yet, what did India do? It had Ivanka Trump speak at a leadership conference. The fact that India thinks it can buy off a president with intangible platitudes says a lot about how badly our assessment has gone wrong. And yet, we still fail to learn the lessons. The initial 2+2 dialogue of defence and foreign ministers was ostensibly postponed, again due to prior commitments. It pretty much forced India to sign up for COMCASA and LEMOA in order to get the 2+2 going. But there again, these foundational agreements haven’t translated into any tangible gain for the US. This is why we had Trump tweet about tariffs once more (he initially raised India’s duties on Harley-Davidson in his 2017 State of the Union speech).
India has long had a field day putting Tariffs on American products. No longer acceptable!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2019
Meanwhile, Trump saw the highly hostile statements on Kashmir, clearly sanctioned from the very top, emanating from Moscow. Former Russian Ambassador to India, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, a confidante of Russia’s Afghanistan point person Zamir Kabulov, had said, “the solution to Afghanistan lies in Kashmir“. Far from any backlash, India proceeded to give Russia close to US$9 billion worth of arms deals for the S-400 and second Akula class submarine. Contrast this with Pakistan. Pakistan can offer Trump minor tangibles in Afghanistan, which have a disproportionate political effect back in the US (Pakistan understands this well). Pakistan has Trump in a monopsony situation by being the only supply route, with Russia and Iran having been alienated.
What was all this meant to signal to Trump? Tweet on tariffs, you won’t get anything; we’ll keep throwing sweet nothings your and Ivanka’s way. But attack us on core interests like Kashmir as Trubnikov did, actively undermine Indian interests as Kabulov had, and you would get US$9 billion. Trump clearly internalised this message. In the end, there is no conclusion other than that India has brought this upon itself. It should have read the warning signs, it didn’t. There should be no doubt that Trump has done this to extract a price. How steep that price will be, shall be determined by what Trump believes: the reality of the Indian economy or Modi’s hype. In the end, Modi may very well end up becoming a victim of his own successful marketing campaign.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.