A US visit PM could have avoided

BJP workers at Delhi Airport to receive PM Narendra Modi as he arrived from New York on September 28, 2019

In the South Block folklore, if a high-level visit by a foreign dignitary lacks substance, simply hype up protocol and make it look larger-than-life. The euphoric welcome accorded to PM Modi at Delhi airport by the BJP, as he returned from the 6-day US visit has no parallel. Modi didn’t receive any such accolade even after the Madison Square Garden do, his first US visit following the visa ban in the aftermath of 2002 Gujarat riots. BJP borrowed from the MEA rule book.

But it won’t fly. No amount of digression can hide deflect the fact that PM’s visit was badly conceived, planned and executed. Howdy Modi will go down in the MEA diplomatic archives as an embarrassment. 

As stock-taking begins, the dismal balance sheet shows that policy assumptions went haywire. Surprisingly, this happened at a time when the EAM is a much-acclaimed America expert himself. 

There has been no conceptual thinking on the profound contradictions in US-Indian relationship at this point in time or to co-relate the partnership with regional and global politics and Trump’s own priorities as he heads toward a raucous election campaign himself.  We ended up looking a supplicant trying to humour an American president who famously despises “losers”. 

The prudent thing for EAM should have been to advise PM to skip this UN GA altogether and to bide time before venturing out into the western world. J&K has become India’s Achilles heel.  

We will never get to see the ‘bio-profile’ of Trump in the Indian briefs, but this visit creates the impression that we regard him as a megalomaniac who falls for theatrical events before American audience, a hollow man lacking beliefs or visions, an avaricious mind, and, above all, a real estate broker who haggles.

These assessments are seriously flawed. True, Trump took the bait on Howdy Modi. Texas is becoming a battle ground state for Republicans and Trump won’t miss a big public event in Houston (which also was completely on the house.) 

But at that point we lost the plot. Trump may not be a Metternich or Woodrow Wilson, but has a world view and deep-rooted beliefs and convictions. When Ronald Reagan got elected in 1980, Trump took a one-page advertisement in the New York Times costing something like $98,000 to espouse a new foreign policy trajectory for the new president which, interestingly, contained ditto the ideas he’s been articulating from Oval Office since 2017. 

As far back as in November 2016, I wrote in Rediff: 

“The heart of the matter is that behind Trump’s bluster, which he was entitled to as any candidate struggling to reach the centrestage in a high-stakes election involving vastly more experienced politicians, it is possible to discern a consistent worldview. And it stands out as a coherent and well-informed worldview… much as one may agree or disagree with it.”

“At its core… his foreign policy ideology narrows down to ‘America First’… Trump’s prism is different. His engagement with the world community will be on vastly different terms. It can no longer be in terms of America’s… ’exceptionalism’, which Obama used to extol, but will be almost exclusively rooted in the country’s self-interests, in terms of safeguarding American security and economic and political interests.”

“Trump is completely unsentimental about allies and friends. Everything depends on the utility of the relationships and alliances… Having said that, a retrenchment by the US from the world arena is far from his thoughts. Wouldn’t he know, after all, that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism — if not the monopoly stage of capitalism? Most certainly, Trump cannot be unaware of the historical place of this stage of capitalism in America. Cartels, protection, the domination of the financiers, colonial policies, military-industrial complex — these are integral to the working of the American economy. Put differently, in order to meet the objectives of mercantilism… the US has no option but to continue to assert its power over other countries. “

Did I go seriously wrong? The point is, it is not difficult to see why Trump is adamant about winding up the “endless war” in Afghanistan — for which he needs Pakistan’s help — and to that end he sees that a “westernist” like Imran Khan makes the perfect partner with whom he can do business — but where he is also expected to cater to Pakistan’s legitimate interests, top priority being the unresolved Kashmir problem involving India. 

If the Sangh Parivar managers in America fancied that Trump would fall for the bait of Indian-American vote bank, that was crass stupidity, because Trump has an astute political mind. Make no mistake, he made it to the White House as a rank “outsider” and would know it is way past Modi’s (or anyone’s) capacity to shepherd the Indian-American voters in 2020. 

Frankly, it’s an insult to the intelligence of the Indian-Americans to regard them as zombies. They are estimated to be nine times better educated than the hapless Indians living in the Hindi heartland. In any case, isn’t it fanciful to try to convince Trump that Indian-Americans who number around one percent of US population can “influence” his political career?

Again, we probably ended up insulting Trump with our promise to invest $2.5 billion in America First. Trump is a hard-nosed businessman who would know that an MOU with India is not worth the paper on which it’s written. And  it now transpires that the Petronet-Tellurian deal is under weather. What if Trump’d already knew that we flaunted an MOU before him in Houston that was already signed in February? 

At the end of the day, Trump didn’t waver on Kashmir. We should now single-mindedly focus on the J&K situation. Everything depends on proving to Trump empirically that he is wrong in wagering that Modi simply lacks the wisdom or statesmanship to resolve Kashmir problem bilaterally with Imran Khan. (See my op-ed in Tribune newspaper Trump’s Kashmir fixation.) 

Looking ahead, however, the really worrisome part is that the American lobbyists in India may now advise PM to make more concessions to the US involving compromises with India’s strategic autonomy.

The first ministerial meeting of Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue took place in New York, Sept 27, 2019

It came as complete surprise that EAM had a sideshow in New York — the evergreen “Quad” (Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue.) Hopefully, EAM is not working on a rapid elevation of “Quad” to summit level that would give PM a privileged Indo-Pacific seat right next to POTUS on his right side, something beyond Imran Khan’s reach.

Don’t laugh. Some of our shenanigans are so ridiculous.