We live in an intriguing new world disorder ever since Mr Donald Trump, a quasi-Republican, stormed into the White House, defying all political prognostications. Optimists believed that much of his pre-election rhetoric—which included a threat of tectonic shifts in the relationship of the USA with Russia, China, Iran, Mexico, and major power/trade blocs etc—would not ultimately translate into reality, given decades of diplomatic investment and painstaking nursing. However, it has now been conclusively established that President Trump is highly irrational and unpredictable, the perfect instance being his flip-flop on China after meeting with President Xi Jinping.
The exaggerated "personal chemistry," the bedrock of Modi's foreign policy is all ballyhoo. The absence of country-specific policy assessment intelligently calibrated with a far-sighted vision seems absent.
The one word that best describes Trump's foreign policy is "mercurial". Case in point: despite contrarian recommendations by his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump chastised Qatar for encouraging jihadi terror, thereby encouraging the Saudi Arabia-led consortium of Arab states to demand a laundry-list of non-negotiable deliverables from the small Gulf nation (including closing Al Jazeera!). Ironically, Qatar is the central base of the western command in the Middle East with the largest contingent of US troops (10,000). Days after Trump's public lambasting of his country's close ally, the US government cleared the sale of US$12 billion of F-15 fighter jets to Doha. Several defense analysts were expectedly gobsmacked. Expect more sudden U-turns and stunning outbursts from the President's Twitter handle (check the latest cartoonish production targeting CNN). I'm mentioning all of this as an important backdrop in which to comprehend the import of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first meeting with his US counterpart, especially apropos to Pakistan.
Despite the brouhaha in the Indian media over Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin being designated a "global terrorist" by the US State Department, the truth is that these apparently breakthrough proclamations are meant for transitory big-bang impact and building atmospherics. They have little practical ramification at the ground-level (Salahuddin, for example, has since given an inflammatory interview to a Pakistani TV channel). Dawood Ibrahim is comfortably ensconced in his luxury Karachi home under 24 x7 security surveillance funded by the Pakistani establishment, and he too is a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist." Evidently, the Americans have turned a blind eye to Hafiz Saeed's frequent public appearances where he makes his incendiary statements exhorting a militant uprising in the Kashmir valley. Guess what? Lashkar-e-Taiba's Saeed has an attractive US$10 million bounty on his head. We need to therefore take the 71-year-old Salahuddin's case with a bucketful of salt. And pepper.
Modi's foreign visits have twin objectives—attract foreign investment and also specifically target the NRI diaspora (for fundraising) and his domestic vote-banks.
In fact, what was particularly disconcerting was the reference to J & K as "Indian-Administered Jammu and Kashmir" in the US Executive Order 13224 on Salahuddin, which ought to have been promptly rebuffed by the Modi government as an extraordinary lapse, with an urgent demand for factual correction. At the time of writing this piece, there is incandescent silence from the corridors of the Ministry of External Affairs, whose timid explanation that this has also happened in the past is preposterous. This is the same BJP that created a massive furor on the inclusion of Balochistan in the joint-statement from Sharm-el-Sheikh. This is undisguised political hypocrisy.
My sympathies to all those defence-sector intellectuals who write lengthy columns on the so-called Modi Doctrine—there is no such thing. The exaggerated "personal chemistry," the bedrock of Modi's foreign policy is all ballyhoo. The absence of country-specific policy assessment intelligently calibrated with a far-sighted vision seems absent. Modi's foreign visits have twin objectives—attract foreign investment and also specifically target the NRI diaspora (for fundraising) and his domestic vote-banks. There is nothing wrong with the former, but the latter overriding imperative has made India's foreign policy transactional; we are floating in a limbo.
Trump and Modi vaingloriously showcase their social media following but it is their fractured societies that they should be worried about.
Despite repeated terror attacks on Indian soil, Pakistan today stands emboldened. It's proximity to China is reaching alarming levels ( China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and One Belt One Road), precipitating a formidable threat on Indian borders. The current boundary standoff with China at the tri-junction in Bhutan is extremely worrying as it crosses five weeks of frozen turbulence. Yet, several Modi cheerleaders on mainstream media are obsessing about Shalom Namo'ste, Modi's "historic" (what isn't?) visit to Israel. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, called for "repudiating oppressors" in Kashmir, further adding to India's woes. The Russians too have commenced chaperoning Pakistan, the joint military exercise conducted by them being disconcerting proof. Modi is perhaps underestimating the increasing menace of a new strategic alliance—the Russia-Pakistan-China axis. Ironically, it is India which seems to be in splendid isolation despite receiving a thousand cuts from a belligerent neighbour. The Russians seem chuffed, particularly after the Americans shot a Syrian military plane , reviving some of the reverberations of Cold War stress, even as India adopts the unprecedented "defence partner" tag with the US. It's complicated.
The USA is hugely over-invested in Pakistan—US$ 33 billion in financial/arms aid over the last decade and a half. It is unlikely to abruptly abandon their only "non-NATO ally", particularly after ballooning Taliban aggression against the Ashraf Ghani Afghanistan government. That's hard realpolitik, even if Kabul blames the Haqqani network for the recent deadly bomb blasts, an unimaginative, myopic Washington still treats Pakistan as a reliable bulwark.
Trump and Modi vaingloriously showcase their social media following but it is their fractured societies that they should be worried about. Polarised communities are paying dear for the duo's hyper-nationalistic bravado. While Modi's conspicuous silence was jarring (expectedly he made belated tokenisms), the international media has severely castigated the anti-minority violence that is being unleashed on Muslims in India, ostensibly in the name of cow vigilantism. For the hyper-sensitive image-conscious Modi, that is embarrassing news. Perhaps even more so than those awkward hugs.