So Kashmir is once again at the centre of a storm, and this time after a long while in the spotlights of an international storm, around President Donald Trump’s announcement that he was asked to mediate on Kashmir by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Lies, suggests India backed by a strong troll campaign. No question of that, says Washington with a top presidential advisor Larry Kudlow now making it clear that “the President does not make up anything”.
In the entire circus of statements between New Delhi and Washington, whether or not Kashmir was raised by PM Modi is just part of the story. Important of course, as if he did it is a major departure from the stated government position on Jammu and Kashmir and hence the one point raised by the Opposition in Parliament. But the gist of what Trump says remains, as an important part of the story.
But first, to be able to fully comprehend the political implications, a quick recap.
Trump told reporters with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan by his side, “I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago, and we talked about the subject. And he actually said, 'would you like to be a mediator, or arbitrator', and I said 'where?', and he said 'Kashmir', because this has been going on for many, many years. I was surprised at how long it’s been going on.” He went on to say that he would “love to be a mediator.”
An MEA spokesperson dimissed the claim within the hour, maintaining that “no such request has been made.”
The US State Department issued a statement, “While Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss, the Trump administration welcomes Pakistan and India sitting down and the United States stands ready to assist.” The spokesperson added, “We believe the foundation for any successful dialogue between India and Pakistan is based on Pakistan taking sustained and irreversible steps against terrorists on its territory. These actions are in line with PM Imran Khan’s stated commitments and Pakistan’s international obligations.”
This statement was seen by New Delhi as a denial of Trump’s remarks.
Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar told Parliament, “I would like to categorically state that no such request has been made by the PM to the US President.” He further said, “I would underline that any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross-border terrorism. Let me conclude by emphasising that the Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration provide the basis to resolve all issues between India and Pakistan bilaterally. I hope in the view of my very specific and categorical responses, there is no confusion in the minds of anybody on this.”
And now the chief economic advisor to President Trump, Larry Kudlow has told reporters at the White House in response to a question, “The President does not make anything up. That's a very rude question in my opinion. I am going to stay out of that. It's outside of my lane. It's for Mr (National Security Advisor John) Bolton, Mr (Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo and President Trump, so I am not going to comment on that.”
As one writes the Opposition is demanding a statement from the Prime Minister on whether he did indeed urge President Trump to mediate on Kashmir. Or whether Trump is lying, as the troll campaign unleashed here seems to suggest. And is what probably provoked Kudlow’s response, defending his President and making it clear that Trump was not making up the conversation he had with PM Modi.
What are the three points that Trump made in his initial remarks?
1. That he was asked not just by Imran Khan but Modi as well to mediate on Kashmir;
2. That he felt there was need for mediation as the issue had been going on for far too long;
3. And if both agreed he would love to mediate on this issue.
Implicit in what he said was that he understood it to be a bilateral issue, and would mediate if asked to by both. What has created the stir is his insistence that Modi has already asked him to mediate. And that he himself had no idea where, and it was the Indian PM who told him that the mediation he was asking for was for Kashmir. And that he had no idea the issue had been dragged on for so long —to which Imran Khan helpfully added "70 years"— and that he would love to mediate.
Nowhere did Trump say he was going to mediate unilaterally, placing the ‘clearance’ as it were at the Indian PM’s door.
The US President is not known for telling the truth or sticking to the facts, with the American media locked in combat with him on a host of issues concerning domestic policies. As such there are more than many willing to accept that Trump has stretched facts again, and attributed words to Modi that were never said. But unfortunately for PM Modi, the categorical statement by the US President has made it a ‘my word versus yours’ issue, creating the doubt that was clearly intended.
Trump has often been lampooned in his country's media as a buffoon of sorts. But the more serious commentators in the US admit he is a smart man, whose lies or half truths are laced with intent. His policy remarks are usually followed through, rightly or wrongly, and he has created a constituency that believes in him with the same passion as those supporting the Indian PM here. For them the lies are ‘strategic’ and Trump works to the ends he has spelt out, even if it is Russia or for that matter North Korea in foreign policy. His critics have learnt to take Trump’s seemingly extremist remarks seriously, as he usually does announce what he intends to do.
And now clearly Kashmir has caught his attention. Whether PM Modi asked him or not is actually immaterial. For Trump, the powerful President of the USA, has said that he did. And the White House is not backing off from these remarks, delivered in what was a thought out process in the company of the Pakistan Prime Minister who added his two words “70 years” to Trump’s observations. It was a very calculated intervention by the President, thought out, and decided. Not off the cuff remarks at all, and hence with decided policy implications that can be expected to play out over the next months.
1. After a hiatus the US President has brought the spotlights back on Kashmir;
2. He has taken the same position as his predecessors, stating that the issue has gone on for far too long unresolved;
3. He would “love” to mediate (in Trump language this could mean he has decided to mediate);
4. Pakistan is very much part of the issue as the remarks were made in the presence of Imran Khan;
5. Pakistan-US ties have been sufficiently restored for not just Afghanistan, but Kashmir to be back on the anvil;
6. And that we can expect to hear more from Trump on Kashmir as he does not easily drop issues, as the Americans have learnt in these years.
By bringing PM Modi into the picture, Trump has sought to give further legitimacy to his “I will mediate” offer by insisting that the request came from the Indian government. The point is not if it is true or untrue now, the point is the manner in which the US President has reported a conversation with the Indian Prime Minister and thereby placed himself at the centre of a mediation or arbitration suggested by Modi. Significantly, he used both terms: arbitration would give him the authority to reach a solution after hearing both sides; while mediation would help the two parties reach a solution between themselves.
Can India ward him off, given the host of agreements signed between the two governments in recent years?
The story has not ended despite the denials and fluster here. Perhaps, insofar as Trump and his strategic interest in Afghanistan and this region is concerned, it has just begun.