Would Donald Trump have really made it up? True, the man is a misguided missile but he has made it to president of the United States and you don’t get there unless you have something out of the ordinary about you. He prides himself on being a “deal-maker”. And he was making the defining deal of his presidency when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was visiting with him. The context was getting the US out of the Afghan imbroglio. That could only happen by inveigling the Taliban to the negotiating table. For that, Pakistan’s whole-hearted cooperation is required.
By turning up in Washington DC with both his army chief and his intelligence chief, Imran was signaling Pakistan’s readiness to render such whole-hearted cooperation, presaged by meeting a long-standing American demand — the release of the Pak-American doctor who had led the US to Osama bin Laden.
But what was Imran to get in return? Nothing more than what any Pak PM needs to cover his shame on returning home — something on Kashmir. Trump obliged. His bombshell had three bursts.
One, “I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago, and we talked about the subject”. Talked about Kashmir?
Second, “And he actually said, ‘would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator, and I said, ‘where?’, and he said “Kashmir’”. What?!
Third, Modi apparently gave his reason why — “because this has been going on for many, many years”. It has.
There was not one meeting but several between Trump and Modi at Osaka. One, of course, was the 40-minute formal meeting between the two sides at which armies of officials from both sides were present — clearly not the opportunity for “pillow talk”. Then, the two were seated side-by-side at dinner, but that conversation was monitored by a joint secretary who acts as a translator for Modi and keeps a summary record of what is said. Then, there were meetings in the lounge (but in other people’s hearing). And, finally while walking the corridors together — where no one was around.
So, was it then that the curious conversation took place that Trump has so vividly described? Remember the precedent: It was precisely such a brief chance encounter with Nawaz Sharif (set up accidentally on purpose) at the Paris Climate Change conference that led to the breakthrough in December 2015 which climaxed by Modi dropping in at the wedding of Sharif’s grand-daughter.
Or were there attendant circumstances that created a misunderstanding on Trump’s part of what Modi was attempting to convey? By refusing to engage with Pakistan, Modi has made the India-US relationship the pivot on which India’s troubled relationship with Pakistan swivels: So, oust Pakistan from its traditional position as the principal ally in South Asia of the US by bolstering the India-US “strategic partnership”; ride pillion on the United States’ global war on terrorism to get US support in battling Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism; leverage the US to get the Pakistan authorities to take action against Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar; leave it to the US to get the world to swing around against Pakistan to get them moved from grey to black on the FATF listing; clandestinely seek US help to get back our wing commander, restrain Pakistan in its counter-action to our bombing of Balakot; and many other such actions. Absent any direct dealings with Pakistan, the US insidiously becomes our intermediary. Then fulsome praise follows for the US having pulled our irons out of the Pakistan fire. Trump takes this praise as acknowledgement of a beneficiary’s gratitude and feels the way open to doing more “good”.
When Modi met Trump in Osaka he knew Trump would be seeing Imran within the next few weeks in Washington. It was also clear that the top priority for Trump was pulling his troops out of Afghanistan both to end two decades of a fruitless war the US is incapable of winning, as also to fulfill a major campaign pledge before running for re-election. That required Washington to assiduously appease Islamabad. And the price to be paid was two-fold: Giving a free hand to Pakistan to secure “strategic depth” in a Taliban-run Afghanistan that would keep India out; and giving Imran a Kashmir-related gift to bail himself out of any domestic troubles that might follow upon his US visit.
Imran has thus assured for his country a renewal of the alliance with the US that has been the cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy since before Partition and Independence. If he and the army-intelligence team that accompanied him to Washington succeed in delivering the Taliban to the conference table, it is entirely likely that Imran would be beaming in the Rose Garden with Trump as the agreement delivering Afghanistan from US military operations to the Taliban and Pakistan is signed a few months down the road. Modi will not be there.
And that precisely is why Modi is travelling to Washington in September. To facilitate that last ditch attempt at salvaging something from the end-game in Afghanistan, Modi has been lauding to the skies the US involvement at every crucial turn in Indo-Pak relations resulting in Trump thinking Modi is leading him up to finding a solution to a problem that “has been going on for many, many years”.
What Hindutva would gain from this is giving Amit Shah and his cronies an opening, with no US objection, to get on with their plans of forcibly “integrating” Kashmir with the Union of India by doing away with everything — Article 370 and 35A — that stands in the way of a demographic restructuring of the Kashmir Valley that will extinguish Kashmir’s Kashmiriyat to bring in Hindutva.
Trump’s slip of the tongue has unveiled the nefarious Modi-Shah game-plan of doing to Kashmiris what Modi’s favourite role-model, Israel, is doing to the Palestinians — gnawing away at their rights, piece by piece.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 25, 2019 under the title ‘Much ado about something’. The writer is a senior Congress leader and former Union Minister.