Donald Trump should be allowed to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? But it’s actually genius if you think about it. The question is, do we have the chutzpah and the political adroitness to pull it off?
The US President is no shying violet. Trump is happy to break from bipartisan policy consensus. For example, on the Israel-Palestine peace process, he has publicly discarded any semblance of neutrality – first moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and then blessing a partition plan that leaves the Palestinians with less than they have ever been offered. The difference was that previously, the US never signed plans that Palestinians didn’t agree to, even though the Israelis offered them progressively less in each iteration. This time, however, the US unveiled the plan and got it pre-approved by some of the most influential Muslim states. This meant Israel didn’t need Palestinian consent to do simply what it wishes, and there’s nothing the Palestinians can do about it.
So, why shouldn’t we do the same with Trump? Let him mediate the Kashmir issue and get him to handle the Pakistanis for us. It’s not so crazy as it sounds. Right now, Trump has made clear it that while he much prefers India, he is tied down to Pakistan due to the US’ engagement in Afghanistan’s peace deal. He’s happy to pinpoint the joint threat of Islamic terror and identify Pakistan as the hive of said terror when in Ahmedabad. But that’s about it. Unlike previous US presidents who weren’t transactional, and stated positions as red lines, everything is negotiable with Trump. That’s what his Pakistan statements were – the opening stance in a negotiation. From the war on terror to mediation on Kashmir, these are all positions to be bargained over and bought.
Exchanging love and diplomacy
What exactly is the price India will have to pay for this devoted, monogamous love from Trump’s US?
As things stand, India has the upper hand in terms of outright purchases of US equipment and a US voter base that is increasingly willing to vote for Trump, unlike Pakistan, which neither has money nor are its expats willing to touch Trump with a barge pole. To be clear, the Indian population in the US is concentrated in coastal urban areas, which see Democrats win by margins that the Indian community simply can’t reverse. However, it’s the campaign funding where Indians make the real difference, being one of the highest disposable income communities in the US. In many ways, this is similar to Jews in the US (though not a perfect analogy).
The main problem, however, lies on the military side of things. While Israel is happy to act as US’ deputy sheriff and make its forces perfectly interoperable with the US, India is unwilling to do either. The former stems from a reluctance to use force as a tool of foreign policy and the latter, from a lingering mistrust of the US and a wildly misguided policy of purchasing equipment from different countries that don’t talk to each other.
The third chip is Afghanistan, the one anchor that makes it impossible for the US to sever its support for Pakistan. But given the imminent US drawdown, that dependency will reduce too. This means this third chip is just maximalist and the initial negotiating position for Trump. He is basically willing to offer us the US’ love in return for trade and loyal voter base. This makes the proposition both realistic for India and extremely well-aligned to our foreign policy.
So, what’s the hang up? In addition to a sagging economy and dysfunctional military, it’s India’s complete lack of political fleet footedness in Washington DC. While Jewish PACs and interest groups are able to divide their support and resources between Republicans and Democrats, to keep both incentivised in Israel, India has neither the sophisticated means or strategisation required. This means what Trump agrees to in 2020 may not be acceptable to a Democrat successor in 2024 and if Pakistan manages to sit out Trump, it may actually gain the upper hand in 2024. Moreover, unlike the Saudis who were able to steamroller him with contracts, we neither have the reserves nor the willpower to do something similar to insulate us from a Democrat backlash.
In short, Donald Trump may be great Kashmir mediator, a blatantly partial one, who’ll be willing to unfairly skew the balance in India’s favour. The problem is, India may not have the diplomatic skill to accommodate his ego while insulating ourselves from a change of government in Washington DC.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.