Thursday, October 17, 2019
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India Goes High As Pakistan Goes Low

Washington DC: The “New India’s” coming out party was loud and assertive. Ten days of enthusiastic outreach to the world at the United Nations and to the Indian diaspora in Houston was impressive, farsighted and necessary.

The diplomatic blitz is still on with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar engaging the think tank community in a thoughtful manner to lay out New Delhi’s point of view. Even detractors are impressed—an India critic at the Carnegie Endowment agreed it was the best explanation on Kashmir developments even as he defended Pakistan’s unhinged response.

Jaishankar has several official meetings lined up as well, including with new US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Defence Secretary Mark Esper, to carry on the conversations on the Indo-Pacific, Pakistan and China.

The U.S. side recognises that representatives of the New India talk the talk differently but the expectation is they will also walk the talk. Bipartisan support for India is healthy even if some wrinkles have developed on Kashmir.

But Indian officials are confident they can woo people back. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the senior most Democrat, will attend an event at Capitol Hill on October 2 to mark Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.

A more assertive and less defensive attitude is palpable on the Indian side after the recent election. As Jaishankar said on Tuesday, it’s a “changed India.” The old elite are out of business. The new set of people has a different sense of where it is coming from. They relate to the world differently.

A rebalancing is clearly on. How the West engages India and vice versa would be crucial in the coming years. India laid out its vision—it’s a multipolar world, there’s a need to engage many partners and the need to better manage convergences and divergences. The response has been positive from Houston to DC via New York.

The broad message on Kashmir: something new had to be done because doing the same old wasn’t an option to break the hold of vested interests and Pakistan’s proxies. The need to save lives overrides the need for the Internet.

The toxic offensive by Pakistan was countered to a large extent but whether India’s point of view would be reflected in the larger western narrative remains to be seen.

Jaishankar is trying to change perceptions but it’s a tall order to expect a shift in a short time. Persistent and constant efforts minus irresponsible statements by ministers would help in the enterprise.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi began with a raucous rally for Indian Americans with President Donald Trump on his side and ended with a high-minded speech to the UN General Assembly. He noted that India was engaged on every world issue of importance—be it climate change, poverty eradication or health care.

The inauguration of solar panels installed on the roof of the UN building last week by Modi in the presence of several world leaders was a tangible example of India’s commitment to slow down climate change besides meeting its goals on renewable energy.

Modi explained his government’s rationale for voiding Article 370 at the Houston rally and pointed the finger at Pakistan for fomenting terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir but stayed above the fray at the UN. It was a good strategy.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, on the other hand, relentlessly raised the Kashmir issue, warned of an impending nuclear war and generally cried himself hoarse to little effect. Only Turkey, Malaysia and China mentioned the Kashmir issue despite his pleas to the international community to punish India. There are 193 member countries at the UN.

However one defines success, this wasn’t it. Khan did admit failure at his press conference and lamented his lack of options.

Khan even got upbraided in public. Richard Haass, a prominent U.S. diplomat and the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who moderated a discussion with Pakistan’s Prime Minister, asked tough questions on his stable of terrorist groups and on the bleak economy. And about Khan’s silence on the plight of Uighurs in China.

On other hand, world leaders made a beeline for Modi. His schedule was full with bilateral and plurilateral meetings. He made an extra effort to go beyond the G-20 and meet leaders of smaller, more vulnerable countries where Indian assistance both economic and technical is much appreciated.

These were leaders of the Pacific Island countries and the Caribbean Community. All in all, Modi met around 50 leaders and many asked him about the rally. Some asked about Kashmir and he laid out his agenda for development.

Significantly, Modi met Trump twice in the span of three days and explained India’s position on starting talks with Pakistan. As Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said: “We have never shied away from talking to Pakistan but none of our overtures was reciprocated”. India got terrorist attacks as a response.

Trump gets it. It’s another matter that he needs Pakistan’s help in managing the exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And he may have sought Khan’s assistance in carrying messages to the Iranians as well.

But these are short-term uses of a country that constantly sells its location in the diplomatic bazaar. India is a much larger country with a lot more to offer the world. The world gets it.

(The author is a Washington-based analyst and columnist. Views expressed in this article are personal.)

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