As India rolls out the red carpet to receive US President Donald Trump next week, rough spots that have arisen in the wake of the Modi government’s decisions on Kashmir and the subsequent passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act will need diplomatic resolution. The Modi government’s sudden dilution of the provisions of Article 370 in Kashmir in August 2019, and the move to deny persecuted Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan the right to seek asylum in India, have not only led to protests at home, but also to disruptions in India’s diplomatic ties abroad, especially with the United States. Even though India has relied on global support for its fight against Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism to defend its move on Article 370, Indian diplomats have found themselves playing defense in world capitals, as Pakistan (through China) has used every opportunity and forum to seek international censure against India.
In the last six months, India has firmly rejected two offers by Donald Trump to mediate between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, dismissed as ill-informed and motivated two hearings on Capitol Hill that raised concerns over human rights in the Kashmir valley; now, just days before Trump’s arrival in Delhi, there are bad optics over a letter by four senior Senators to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seeking an assessment on Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Act. At a time of partisan politics and ideological polarisation in both countries, Delhi’s response to hearings and resolutions on Capitol Hill, led largely by legislators from the Democratic Party, was dismissive. However, the fact that one of the signatories to this latest letter includes senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (also known to be close to Trump) could indicate that concerns over human rights in India are now becoming bipartisan in a re-election year for Donald Trump.
At last week’s Munich Security Conference, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar pointedly rebuffed Senator Graham’s concerns at a panel they attended together, but the repeated statements from Washington, in the face of a structural economic decline in India and floundering trade ties begs the question of whether the US is using the articulation of such concerns as a bargaining tool to ‘get more’ from India during the Trump visit. For the last two years, President Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ and Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaigns have been at odds with each other. As the Indian economy continues to reel under the impact of demonetization and a poorly implemented GST regime, tension between Washington and Delhi over trade has mounted. Retaliatory tariff wars have led to America filing a dispute complaint against India at the World Trade Organisation, and to India now having the dubious honor of being declared a ‘developed’ country by the United States Trade Representative (USTR).
Under Trump, the US has consistently accused both India and China of wrongfully claiming benefits reserved for ‘truly’ developing countries and sought to renegotiate trade deals. India had seen nearly 2,000 goods exempted from US trade tariffs until 2019, when it was stripped of its status under the Generalised System of Preferences or GSP. These obstacles come against the backdrop of two decades of strengthening ties that saw four presidential visits to India, a nuclear trade deal, a surge in bilateral trade of goods and services from 16 billion dollars in 1999 shooting up to 142 billion in 2018 (18 billion dollars in defense, at last count), and a strategic re-alignment of the Indo-Pacific which placed India squarely as America’s preferred strategic partner in Asia. The India-US relationship had received a fresh push with the elections of Modi and Trump in 2014 and 2016 respectively, in the hope that strong, decisive leadership focused on economic growth would benefit both countries.
But for Trump’s protectionist, isolationist America, support for India’s regional primacy in Asia has a cost. Not only has the US under Trump equated India with China on trade practices, it has also attempted to draw India in as the cold war between the US and China heats up over technology. Washington has expressed disappointment that Delhi, looking for ways to drive its new digital economy, has not taken a clear position on the possibility of acquiring 5G technology from China despite American warnings of potential security risks. It can be argued that the disappointment of a flailing trade relationship has also encouraged Washington to use statements on Kashmir as a lever to pressure India on concessions. As economic expectations begin to fade, Kashmir and the CAA have become an inflection point and demand scrutiny of whether such statements and offers from Washington would have been made at all if the economic partnership were stronger.
That nation-states act first and foremost in self-interest is a truism. Until the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, economic imbalances and geopolitical quests aside, the India-US friendship had also prided itself as being one of democratic equals – the oldest democracy and the largest democracy joining hands to protect and uphold of liberal values in the international arena. The early 2000s saw Washington articulate support for India’s many diplomatic and security endeavours premised on this ideological partnership: for a permanent seat at the UN Security council, as a strategic ally and partner in the fight against terrorism, and in countering China’s attempts at hegemony in the region.
International opinion was once considered a moderating force in favour of citizens who have equity in the State and against governments that act against liberal principle. But as Prime Minister Modi readies to receive Donald Trump, all eyes seem to be on whether it (international opinion) can still be a game-changer. On the question of rights in a re-defined foreign policy paradigm that is no longer risk-averse and prioritizes transaction over ideology, Delhi recognizes only too well the clear advantages it offers Washington as its own lever against criticism on Kashmir and the CAA: access to Indian markets, especially for defence manufacturing, strategic leverage against China, even ideological support for Trump’s America make India an important friend and ally.
And while the comity of democracies, led by the United States in the years after World War II, may well speak in the language of rights and freedoms, of values and principles, in reality one cannot ignore the fact that these norms often come secondary to more practical concerns. Strategic and security imperatives, the quest for economic growth, and the fight against terrorism globally have, over time, all proven to be greater imperatives than the upholding of international norms. So even if the divergence between India’s increasingly majoritarian domestic politics and a secular foreign policy poses challenges to diplomacy, realpolitik suggests that great democracies today can just as easily claim their place in the league simply by lip-service to liberal values in an age of populism.
(Maya Mirchandani teaches Media Studies at Ashoka University and is Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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