Heart attack? – Najam Sethi

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“Hindu” India is in raptures over the massive “Howdy Modi” reception accorded to its prime minister in Houston by expat Indians. Images of a triumphant Mr Modi and a beaming US President Donald Trump wading through the 50,000 strong crowd, hand in hand, are plastered all over Indian social media, signaling a solid relationship between the “greatest” democracy and the “biggest” democracy in the world. The implied textual reading is that America has bought the Indian stance on Pakistan, hook, line and sinker.

Interestingly, only last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also received a tumultuous reception from around 10,000 Pakistani fans in Washington. Proportionately, speaking, this was even more significant, considering there are ten times as many Indians as Pakistanis in America. President Trump also had some flattering remarks to make about Mr Khan and Pakistan and the close cooperation and understanding between them going forward. That is when Mr Trump revealed that Mr Modi had asked him to mediate conflict between India and Pakistan, a claim that was promptly denied by New Delhi but without any impact on Mr Trump who has continued to publicly offer his services to both countries as an effective mediator.

What is significant about the separate meetings of the two sub-continental prime ministers with President Trump is the different meanings both have drawn from their joint press conferences with him and assorted statements later attributed to him.

The Indians say that President Trump has bought their argument about Pakistan as a “state sponsor” of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and approved Modi’s formal annexation of the state. The Pakistanis say that, on the contrary, President Trump is aware of the relevance of the UN Resolutions on Kashmir and is disturbed by the large scale, unprecedented violation of human rights in the Valley following the Indian “lockdown” in Kashmir.

The Hindu newspaper reports that the “Indian and US sides offered summaries of the meetings (of Mr Modi and Mr trump) that were, in some respects, at variance with one another”. The paper pointed out that “at least two differences between the two accounts – one on Afghanistan and one on terror and Kashmir – were substantive. The Indian account … said that Afghanistan had not been discussed …; the US administration, however, said that the two countries discussed Afghanistan”. The Indians said that “the session was split equally between a discussion on terrorism and trade” and that Mr Modi explained in detail “the challenges India had faced from terrorism, especially in Jammu and Kashmir over the last 30 years”. However, wrote The Hindu, “there was no mention of terrorism in the White House readout … Additionally, the (US) President encouraged Prime Minister Modi to improve relations with Pakistan and fulfill his promise to better the lives of the Kashmiri people”. The Hindu failed to note another difference: while the Indians claim that Pakistan’s terrorism was discussed, the White House declares that terrorism in Afghanistan was discussed!

Clearly, both India and Pakistan have articulated their respective positions to President Trump and, clearly, he has made reassuring noises in private to both. Clearly, too, he has been careful in public not to appear to be taking sides in the India-Pak conflict by fully endorsing anyone’s point of view. But it is significant that President Trump recognizes the potentially disastrous consequences of any military conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations because he keeps repeating his offer to mediate between the two countries.

The fact of the matter is that the US is walking a tightrope between two objectives: in the short term, it tactically needs Pakistan’s unstinting support to extricate itself honourably from Afghanistan – it now wants Pakistani to bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table with the US – and it needs Pakistan to stand with it and Saudi Arabia in their simmering conflict with Iran; in the long term, the US is committed to propping up India as a strategic partner in its conflict with China. The last thing President Trump wants in his election year is a conflict between India and Pakistan that drags Pakistan away from focusing on getting America a good deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. When Mr Khan was asked whether President Trump had sought his mediation between the US and Iran, Mr Khan replied: “President Trump asked me to talk to Iranian President Rouhani which I did…”, without elaborating further.

There are two complications in this developing scenario. First, Mr Modi has ratchetted up tensions with Pakistan to such a point that if he doesn’t do anything to “teach” Pakistan a “lesson” soon, he will lose credibility with his Hindu nationalist constituency. Second, Mr Khan has ruled out the possibility of any dialogue with India unless the original Article 370 status of J&K is restored.

It’s no wonder then that Imran Khan told Richard Haas at New York’s Council on Foreign Relations that if he (Mr Haas) had had to deal with this situation, he would have had a heart attack!