For an Indian who ever had anything to do with the making or implementation of India’s Kashmir policy, listening to the 2-hour long Congressional hearing in Washington, DC, on October 22 would have been a scandalous experience.
There has never been such scathing criticism of our Kashmir policies in the recent decades voiced so openly and without reserve by “the crème de la crème of the US foreign policy establishment — lawmakers of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
An Indian-American analyst based in Washington, DC, has written a piece on some of the salients, but only to end up mildly rebuking the Modi government that “India has a growing problem on Capitol Hill.” But it is a gross underestimation to have reduced the happening to a matter of ineffectual Indian lobbying.
Perhaps, the author wrote a curtain raiser for the upcoming franchise of the Indian ‘think tank’ Observer Research Foundation in Washington, DC, which, according to Delhi grapevine, will be headed by a close relative of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. So, in a manner of speaking, it’s all in the family.
The significance of US Congressional hearings cannot be downplayed, as the probability is always there that at some point, such events transmute as political or legislative acts by the lawmakers. In this case, there is already some talk about introducing a bipartisan resolution on Kashmir in the Congress urging India to lift all restrictions on peaceful assembly and communications.
Simply put, the hearing was decidedly critical of the Modi government and it is doubtful if lobbying by the ORF or by all the king’s men and all the king’s horses would have got the desired results — even with lavish MEA funding.
Money is not really the problem. Otherwise, the Saudis wouldn’t be in the dog house on Capitol Hill today. Make no mistake, with green money, Saudi regime survived even the 9/11 attacks. The Saudis not only had their own think tanks in the US, but they funded a few native American ones too, and influential decision makers in the Beltway have enjoyed Saudi largesse at some point or another. But all that doesn’t help today. Those times are gone forever. The mood in the Congress turns ugly the moment someone utters the word ‘Saudi Arabia’.
Simply put, no amount of image building works when the product is lousy. Frankly, the Indian narrative on J&K stretches credulity — except perhaps to the Arnab Goswamis, Rahul Shivshankars, Navika Kumars and Bhupendra Chaubeys of our TV channels. What can ORF do under these circumstances?
Two of the three leading presidential contenders of the Democratic Party have voiced direct criticism of Modi government’s policies in J&K — and they are well-informed intellectuals too (here, here and here). The art of flattery or dissimulation won’t work with them. Indian diplomacy never faced such a predicament.
The fact of the matter is that politics in the US has phenomenally changed through the recent years following Candidate Trump’s appearance on the centre stage in 2015. And Trump became so toxic that anti-bodies began appearing like mushrooms after a significant rain event. Generally speaking, value-based politics (in contrast with ‘exceptionalism’) are gaining ground in the US debate. Even socialism is no longer passé.
Thus, the benevolent opinion regarding India and the eagerness to bypass its numerous deficiencies, howsoever obvious and pernicious like its oppressive caste system, is changing. The perception of India used to be that it was a thriving democracy steeped in pluralistic, secular, tolerant values and culture, which gave primacy to the rule of law. That is changing. There is willingness to find fault with India, take note of the country’s current history and politics. This has been one of the factors that contributed to the dissipation of the so-called ‘bipartisan consensus’ regarding India.
Indeed, the excesses of the past 5 years of BJP rule, the polarisation of the Indian society, the pressures on democratic values and institutions, the overall tendencies toward authoritarianism characterised by intolerance and dissent and, of course, the anti-Muslim agenda as such — all these have, inevitably, come under close scrutiny in the West. There is growing realisation that democracy is under threat in India under Modi’s leadership.
The government’s moves regarding the status of J&K and the crackdown in the valley have only reinforced these negative perceptions and opinions regarding India.
Now, being seen as Trump’s buddy itself can be risky. PM Modi was incredibly indiscreet at the Howdy Modi in Houston by openly endorsing Trump for a second term. It was completely unwarranted political theatre to have invited Trump to stride the stage like a Colossus before an Indian-American audience, and to glorify him.
Did the ruling elite really expect that Trump, an incorrigibly self-centred 900-pound gorilla, will ever do a favour to anyone in real life? Surely, the damage has been done. The Democrats who were always friends of India, haven’t taken well India’s presumptuous interference in American politics. And the ‘bipartisan consensus’ among the Democrats and Republicans regarding India has become shaky.
Given the above, even if we had packed the audience at the Congressional hearing last week with ethnic Indians, would it have made any difference? The answer is no. To my mind, even if half a dozen Indian think tanks set up shop in DC, things cannot significantly change. We should not copy the Saudi habit of throwing money at every problem.
The problem here is that the narrative on J&K is unconvincing and the backdrop of American politics is not conducive for realpolitik. At any rate, the international community — not only the Americans — has first-hand sources of information as to what is happening in India, including in J&K.
The RIA Novosti featured an alarming piece yesterday that India is ratcheting up tensions and preparing for war with Pakistan! In such extraordinary times, the better option is to slither past the difficult period unnoticed — and to return onstage with uncommon elan when, or whenever, ‘normalcy’ returns to the Kashmir valley.