Modi curries favor with Trump but it won’t work

Nearly a year it took for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President to have a phone conversation. The last time they spoke was reportedly in February 2018. On Monday, Modi took the initiative to dial up.

Two divergent accounts of the conversation have appeared. The Indian version labored to inject some verve into the conversation, saying the two leaders “expressed satisfaction at the progress of the India-US strategic partnership”; “appreciated developments” such as the new 2+2 Dialogue mechanism; “took positive note” of bilateral cooperation; and, “agreed to continue to work together for further strengthening” the ties.

On the contrary, the White House readout was taciturn: “President Trump received a call today from Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India on the occasion of the New Year. The leaders agreed to strengthen the US-India strategic partnership in 2019 and exchanged perspectives on how to reduce the US trade deficit with India, expand security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific, and increase cooperation in Afghanistan.” The White House dispensed with emotions. Trump’s priority is “how to reduce the US trade deficit with India.”

Modi decided to overlook Trump’s extraordinary behavior last week to mock him at his first cabinet meeting of 2019 in the White House. Trump made some highly disparaging remarks that betrayed his poor opinion of the PM as someone who thinks he’s smart but isn’t really anywhere near as smart as he thinks. Trump generally reserves such acerbic remarks for personalities he can browbeat and dominate. It is part of Trump’s Art of the Deal.

In fact, Trump had also snubbed Modi recently by turning down the invitation to him to visit India as Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebrations on January 26. Evidently, Modi swallowed his pride. Why did he do that? The answer is, storm clouds are gathering on the horizon.

The Indian foreign-policy establishment is watching with unease the US-Pakistan rapprochement, which is gaining traction and is leading toward a visit by Prime Minister Imran Khan to the White House at Trump’s invitation. Last week, Trump hinted that he hoped to receive Imran Khan “in the not-too-distant future.”

The Indian establishment has reason to worry that Trump may not subscribe to the Obama-era policy to “dehyphenate” relations with Pakistan and India. In Trump’s scheme of deal making, like the witches’ brew in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, all sorts of ingredients go into a deal – “the scale of a dragon, a wolf’s tooth, a witch’s mummified flesh, the gullet and stomach of a ravenous shark, a root of hemlock that was dug up in the dark, a Jew’s liver, a goat’s bile, some twigs of yew that were broken off during a lunar eclipse, a Turk’s nose, a Tartar’s lips” and so on.

Suffice to say, in the brew that Trump is cooking with Imran Khan, Kashmir issue will almost inevitably become an ingredient at some point. It cannot be otherwise because Imran Khan is willing to accommodate US interests in Afghanistan, including continued American military presence in some form or the other. The US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Qatar and, importantly, China are cheering Imran Khan along.

Suffice to say, Imran Khan’s meeting with Trump will be a defining moment in regional security. A Pakistani paper reported today from Islamabad,

“Diplomatic sources say Pakistan does not agree with a US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan without establishing a stable police system and institutions. Pakistan wishes to first bring stability in Afghanistan and believes that Afghanistan should not be left the way it was ignored after end of the Cold War.”

“The US annually spends $50 billion on Afghanistan. However, if the US stops this aid it will become difficult for Afghan government to sustain and the country will once again fall into the hands of warring factions.”

Simply put, although the US couldn’t win the war in Afghanistan, Trump is extricating the American troops out of the war while also keeping the US regional strategies intact and forward looking. Trump couldn’t have asked for more from Imran Khan.

Now, Imran Khan has been articulating on the crisis situation in J&K with increasing frequency. He senses that Kashmir is Modi’s Achilles heel. Most certainly, he’d know that Trump himself is open to intervening in the Kashmir dispute. Trump has said so publicly. (So has Vice-President Mike Pence.) According to the former US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, Trump spoke of it explicitly in a National Security Council discussion in the White House.

In an earlier era, Indian diplomacy would have taken care to engage with Pakistan so that outside mediation was unwarranted. But Modi government jettisoned that approach. On the other hand, its ineptness and political miscalculations have caused a first-rate crisis situation in J&K. Today, the turmoil in J&K is very much in the international limelight.

Meanwhile, the US-Indian relations are in drift. Modi concentrated on self-image and grandstanding – starting with the theatrical performance on Madison Square Garden in September 2014 – which raised American expectations sky-high. The false expectations finally began withering away following Doklam standoff when it dawned on all concerned that India after all lived in its region. Modi government worked hard to “isolate” Pakistan regionally and internationally, but ended up isolating India.

Modi probably hopes to ingratiate himself, but Trump will only take it as sign of weakness and as consistent with his assessment of the PM. In comparison, Trump and Imran Khan have never spoken with each other. When Imran Khan hit back in real time at Trump’s tirade in November, the latter quickly changed tack and wrote a nice letter seeking Pakistan’s help with Afghan peace talks. And the next thing we hear from Trump is that he looks forward to receiving Imran Khan. Trump respects grit and has only contempt for supplicants.

(This blog appeared in Newsclick.)