NEW YORK: U.S. President Donald Trump clearly wants to be the man who solves the India-Pakistan problem or at least try to. He keeps repeating his offer to mediate but only if both sides want.
As he sat next to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday, he said a resolution was possible if only the two leaders met and got to know each other. His strategy appears to be to heap praise on both Modi and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and appeal to their desire to make history. Just as he does.
If only it were that simple. But that doesn’t deter Trump from trying. And that is perhaps why he refused to answer multiple questions from Indian journalists on Pakistan being the epicentre of terrorism even though Khan publicly said on Monday that Pakistan army and the ISI had trained al-Qaeda.
Trump didn’t budge and threw the ball instead to Modi, saying it was up to the prime minister to send a message to Pakistan, not for him. “And he gave that loud and clear the other day,” said Trump, referring to the rally in Houston where Modi had made a reference to the conspirators of 9/11 and 26/11 hiding in a certain country he did not name.
Trump’s not calling Pakistan out publicly on terrorism could have several reasons but his position is in stark contrast to India’s. Instead, Trump said Iran would have to be on top of the list of states that sponsor terrorism.
Significantly, Khan took to the microphone later Tuesday to unleash a diatribe against Modi, saying the Indian Prime Minister had “locked himself into a blind alley” and the only way out was a massacre of Kashmiri people once the curfew was lifted.
He also revealed that Trump had asked him to mediate with Iran as had Saudi Arabia and he was trying his best to bring the two sides together. This wrinkle puts a new light on Trump’s reluctance to criticise Khan.
Besides, it’s well-known that Trump wants a deal in Afghanistan to get U.S. troops back and Pakistan’s help is important. On Iran, both he and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hold harsh views largely influenced by Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Additionally, Imran Khan has managed to connect with Trump, just as Modi has. Trump said his chemistry with the Indian Prime Minister was “as good as it gets”. Khan has also triggered Trump’s deal-making instincts and thus the presidential desire to make his unique contribution in South Asia.
“I believe these two great gentlemen will get together and work something,” Trump said with Modi by his side. A day before, Khan, with whom Trump had a “long meeting” on Monday, had appealed to Trump’s sense of grandeur, calling on him to put out “fires” in the world as the leader of the most powerful country.
“If I can help, I will certainly help,” responded Trump. He believes he is the world’s best deal-maker and has said so many times, including before his meeting with Khan. If there’s a common thread going through his wooing of India and Pakistan, it is his belief that “a lot of good things will come from that meeting”.
Or maybe restarting talks with India is the price Khan has demanded for his cooperation on Afghanistan. Pakistani diplomats are fairly open about their desire/desperation for any kind of talks.
On Tuesday, Trump heaped praise on Modi too, comparing him to Elvis Presley, no less, and then going on to say Modi had brought together dissenting voices in India like a “father would”. He could be the father of India, Trump went on, forgetting India already had a Father of the Nation, one from Modi’s own state of Gujarat.
Clearly, one has to draw several lines through any interaction with Trump, one that separates his freewheeling discourses from actual policy, another that separates the fantastical from the real.
Modi and Trump talked mainly about terrorism and trade in the short meeting of about 30 minutes. Trump said a trade deal would be concluded “very soon” and would make way for even “a bigger deal”.
The two sides are still trying to reach a compromise, often a more difficult proposition than figuring out geopolitical alignments.
As Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said a trade deal involves issues that are “complex” because they involve domestic industries and jobs on both sides. “It requires a certain amount of balance. We want a fair and reasonable deal. We have laid out our requirements.” He echoed Trump’s assertion that a trade deal would be done “fairly soon”.
But there is some disappointment on the U.S. side that Trump and Modi could not announce a deal together. Expectations were high for a breakthrough—and it may still happen—but that moment of two leaders jointly announcing something is gone.
Overall, things went well, according to Gokhale. It was the fourth meeting between the two leaders in as many months. Since Modi’s re-election, they have met in Osaka, Biarritz, Houston and now New York.
In the latest meeting, the Indian side focused on the scourge of terrorism. Modi explained to Trump that India has “never shied from talking to Pakistan” but none of India’s overtures had been reciprocated.
Modi invited Pakistan’s prime minister to his oath-taking ceremony in 2014 and went on a trip to Lahore but what India got in return were terrorist attacks.
(The author is a Washington-based analyst and columnist. Views expressed in this article are personal.)