There can be a golden lining to the clouds, for India
It is stating the obvious to say that India has been dismayed at the outcome of the Prime Minister Imran Khan meeting with President Donald Trump in the White House.
Commentaries, by the reams, and by countless hours on television shows, in India, and also in the U.S., are searching answers to questions like: Why did Trump say what he said at the joint press gaggle with Imran Khan? How did Imran Khan wangle a meeting with Trump? Was India caught napping, or did it falter, in shepherding its strategic interests and relations with the United States? What now, what should India do to consolidate its relationship with the U.S.? How about Pakistan, when will the rogue elements in India's neighborhood stop nicking India?
The answer to all above is complex, and this single column cannot do justice to the nuances. But yes, there is slog work ahead, and a golden lining to the clouds for India at the horizon in about two years — and, of course it will take more hard work by India, and time of about the next two years.
First things first. How to understand America, and how to understand Trump. The world must realize that Trump is the most unconventional ever U.S. president in history, and it is he alone who makes foreign policy in the United States, and no one else. Much like his working style in domestic politics, where too he has exercised his presidential and governmental powers to the micro-levels with a hammer, even if losing some battles, Trump is similarly the sole thinker and decider of U.S. foreign policy.
Today, Trump is America. And, America is Trump. He may decide to make U-turns, threats, and actions on any aspect of policy, with any country, and his decisions and tweets have clear impact. Some of his statements or tweets may get lost in maelstroms of controversy, but most decisions by Trump, i.e., America, do have big global impact. Just ask China. Observe Japan. See Turkey. France. Germany. Analyze Wall Street, stocks and stock markets, WTO, and national policies. America is making its presence felt in ways and methods hitherto never imagined by the world governments, business, and leaders.
Above said, there is no doubt that Trump can also be influenced "after all, he also has a circle of friends, reads or watches TV, is active on social media, and he has his chosen and appointed officials and brains in government, whose job is to advise him. No leader lives in a vacuum – any leader uses his time judiciously and absorbs information that comes to him from his chosen channels of communications. So with Trump.
In the case of Pakistan, it seems Trump was largely influenced by Senator Lindsey Graham, who very recently visited Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also speculated that the Pakistan ambassador in the U.S. is old pals with Jared Kushner. He worked the phones, and voila the White House meeting happened. There are also reports that say that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia was the principal interlocutor for this meeting, which sounds low on probability, and even reports that are convinced that a "Wahabi" lobby in Washington, DC was the instrumental agency.
Graham has little or nil experience of Pakistan. It is certainly possible that Pakistan treated him well, praised him, and sold him a story and logic, as below, during his mission to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In domestic politics, Graham has been getting close to Trump, especially after the passing of John McCain. Graham wants to get re-elected from South Carolina and needs the support of Trump to win the election. While Trump needs Graham's support since Graham is the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, so, a Graham-Trump communication channel that facilitated the Trump-Imran meeting at White House sounds most plausible.
Whatever the channels that reached Trump, the message that they succeeded in selling to Trump was: "Pakistan is ready, willing and able to help the U.S. in Afghanistan, and will also curb the terrorism emanating from inside Pakistan, if only our eastern borders with India are secure and peaceful from the Kashmir issue. If Kashmir, our eastern border is peaceful, then we can fully apply all our military forces to solve and manage the challenges on our Western orders, and help you, the U.S. in Afghanistan with our full abilities.”
Trump has liked and approved of the idea, and it may not be far to suggest that the idea of bringing peace to the Kashmir region appealed to Jared Kushner, too. After all, Kushner is also trying to bring peace in global hot-spots like the Middle East.
Though India may be unhappy at this point of time, no purpose will be served by an emotional, or petulant response. There is a golden lining to the clouds " but only and only if the following two things can be achieved in the next two years.
One, the continuing pressure of the Financial Action Task Force on Pakistan to improve its record on curbing terror financing, money laundering, and effectively and transparently sealing operations of terror groups inside Pakistan. Two, a genuine effort by Pakistan to adhere to the "good behavior" promises made by Imran Khan to Trump. There is a window of opportunity of less than two years when Pakistan will try showcase its best behavior to the U.S., till the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, and a few months more. India must focus to maximize the outcomes of both the above within this window of less than two years.
India must also remember that Trump was insisting that Pakistan must get rid of all domestic and foreign terrorists from Pakistan's soil responsible for the attacks in Mumbai and on the Indian Parliament. We must remember that when India decided to use its air force to strike inside Pakistan at Balakot recently, Trump gave his vehement support to India. Trump also played a role in asking Imran Khan to release the captured Indian pilot, Abhinandan.
Prime Minister Modi has done well by not entangling himself with President Trump's statements. Nothing has changed officially between the two. In foreign affairs, Trump has always relied on close personal relations and diplomacy. He has always made sure that only he alone could control such personal diplomacy and rapport with the foreign leaders.
Of course, most members of the U.S. Congress, and the politically active Indian American community, can and do contribute significantly to U.S.-India relations, and India must invest much more time and energy on these constituencies than it has been doing so far, yet there should be no doubt that the top agenda any day in a Trump presidency, are purely of choosing by Trump, and his view of the world. India must learn to deal with such matters. Especially since Trump may remain U.S. president till 2024.
In their bilateral meetings, Trump has suggested to Modi that he would welcome telephone calls from him, anytime. One must assume Modi is taking full advantage of this offer. India is the only major country Trump has not yet visited.
India has to stay on the message, and its articulation and advocacy of reform by Pakistan must continue at all levels, albeit now with a heightened urgency, since Pakistan may extricate itself from its "good behavior” soon after the U.S. extricates itself from Afghanistan by the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. The window is short; India must act.
(The writer is president of The Imagindia Institute. The views expressed are personal.)