Saturday September 25, 2021

When Modi met Trump

June 29, 2017

The bear hug between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump was the takeaway image from their meeting in Washington. Here were two bitterly divisive figures who had come to power through ultra-nationalist campaigns that demonised minorities. It was hardly surprising that the two got along so well. It was also not surprising that the mob lynching this weekend on an Indian train in which a 16-year-old Muslim boy was killed was not mentioned during the talks. Nor was India’s brutal suppression of the legitimate complaints of the Kashmiri people. Instead, their press conference came with a promise of closer ties. The most significant move the US designating 71-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin as a ‘global terrorist’. Traditionally, the Americans have tried to remain neutral on all issues between Pakistan and India. They have even attempted to play broker in the dispute on Kashmir. The timing of this move – with Indian troops committing increasing atrocities and human rights abuses against the Kashmiri people – reflects the US’s self-selected blindness to regimes which are repressing their own people. In the complicated politics of Kashmir, the designation of Salahuddin as a ‘terrorist’ would only serve to increase his popularity in the valley. India knows that the recent protests in Kashmir started after it killing young militant leader Burhan Wani. Pakistan has responded by criticising the designation of persons who support the Kashmiri right to self-determination as terrorists. The position is correct but Pakistani officials would be worried behind the scenes about the amicability of the Modi-Trump meeting. In his speech at the White House, Modi did not specifically mention Pakistan but his reference to the safe havens and sanctuaries supposedly given to terrorists was a clear reference to us.      And the worrying word from Washington is that the US is looking at a stricter policy on Pakistan in the offering.

The Modi visit was ultimately a coming out party for a country that harbours ambitions of being a regional superpower that has allied itself to the global superpower. His discussions on defence with Trump, such as on increased naval cooperation, were directed against China, the only rival to India in South Asia. Since assuming power, Trump has toned down his anti-China rhetoric, in the hope that it can help the US deal with North Korea, which has India worried. China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative is seen by India as a threat to its own imperialistic ambitions and it is going to the US as a way of countering OBOR’s influence. There was little in the way of substantive agreements between the two countries but the optics of Modi and Trump appearing to be so close will show the region that India intends on being the neighbourhood cop of the US and in return the US will parrot its line on Kashmir and terrorism. Ultimately, the meeting between the two is a reminder that the US and India have become closer mostly because of the latter’s growing economic importance. And, while the alliance between the two deeply divisive leaders might not last long, for now they seem to be kindred spirits.