It will all be forgotten in a few days and won’t even get the mention of a footnote but when it happened all hell broke loose. During the visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to the US, President Donald Trump, unexpectedly and rather dramatically offered to “mediate or arbitrate” in the Kashmir dispute which led to screeching headlines and political upheaval in India.“If I can help, I would love to be a mediator,” Trump was quoted as telling reporters in the White House with Khan at his side on 22 July. Referring to his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan on 28- 29 June 2019, he, rather outlandishly, suggested that Prime Minister Modi had asked him to mediate.
For many in India this would have genuinely come as a shock as it reverses decades old American policy of viewing the Kashmir dispute a bilateral matter to be resolved between India and Pakistan, in sync with Indian sensibilities. Though all American Presidents, including Barack Obama, had tempted to wade into the Kashmir dispute every now and then, it is now well understood in Washington that this is no go area for the US if it wants to see ties with India grow and mature. So what prompted Trump to say what he said remains a matter of intense speculation in India. One can weave in all kinds of conspiracy theories to make a case for this latest‘Trumpism’ but the reality remains that it is very difficult to figure out what Trump is thinking most of the time on serious matters of geopolitics. If his own State Department finds it difficult to navigate his thought process, India has a very difficult task at hand.
But given the political sensitivities involved, Indian response was quick and robust. India’s Ministry of External Affairs tweeted “We have seen @POTUS’s remarks to the press that he is ready to mediate, if requested by India & Pakistan, on Kashmir issue. No such request has been made by PM @narendramodi to US President. It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally. Any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross border terrorism. The Shimla Agreement & the Lahore Declaration provide the basis to resolve all issues between India & Pakistan bilaterally.” Though succinct, Indian response basically made it clear that the US President was lying on this issue. This was followed by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s remarks in the Rajya Sabha in which he reaffirmed that no such request has been made by Prime Minister Modi. And in response to a formal protest from New Delhi, the US State Department also tried to do some damage control by underlining that the Kashmir dispute was a “bilateral” issue between India and Pakistan and that the US “welcomes” the two countries “sitting down” for talks. It also said Pakistan taking “sustained and irreversible” steps against terrorism is key to a successful dialogue with India.
Kashmir is a sensitive subject and Indians rightly expect their partners to be sensitive to India’s core interests. But overanalysing Trump’s behaviour might be a fool’s errand. He has been a highly disruptive President and has been unconventional in his approach. His tirades against some of America’s closet partners have made the job of American diplomats difficult. So, instead of jumping to conclusions, New Delhi should wait and watch if there is a pattern emerging in Trump’s behaviour on Kashmir. If there is, then India will have to re-strategise but if not, there is no point wasting so much energy on a non-issue. What was significant was that the joint statement issued after Trump-Khan talks at the White House made no mention of Kashmir.
India’s official response has been robust and the push back has been solid. America would have got the message that they need to course correct and that’s what they have trying to do since Trump’s remarks. There are much bigger issues on the US- India bilateral agenda that need sorting out. From trade to Iran, from the S 400 deal to 5G, the two nations need to talking to each other more substantively to arrive at mutually desirable outcomes. In fact, the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan should be a greater cause of concern in the context of Imran Khan’s visit to the US and Trump’s demand that Pakistan “help us out to extricate ourselves” from Afghanistan.
The Kashmir dispute has lost global resonance and it is hypersensitivity in certain sections of the Indian polity that might bring it back on the global agenda. If India could stave off efforts by the world’s mightiest powers to intervene in the Kashmir dispute in the past when India was marginal in the global power hierarchy, as a nation we should have greater confidence in our ability to manage Kashmir today when we are moving towards a $5 trillion economy. Trump’s comments should be ignored with the contempt it deserves and New Delhi should move on to more important matters.
Professor Harsh V. Pant is Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.