The White House meeting between Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and America’s President Donald Trump on July 22, when bonhomie and the latter’s desire to “extract” its troops from Afghanistan stood out, has continued to rattle India-US relations. The uproar in Parliament and the Opposition’s demand for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement, as he was named by Mr Trump as seeking mediation to resolve the Kashmir imbroglio, persisted for days. A denial by external affairs minister S. Jaishankar failed to pacify the Opposition. The Jammu and Kashmir issue was thus unlikely to recede from view anytime soon.
Quite unrelated to Mr Trump’s claim, the recently-reelected NDA government had been fast losing its shine due to multiple events. The news on the economic front kept supplementing the growing impression that the economy was stalling. The Sensex, reflecting the general gloom in business environment, dropped since the Budget from a high of 40,000 to hover around 37,000. Then came the shocking suicide of entrepreneur and politically well-connected owner of Café Coffee Day, V.G. Siddhartha, who in his last communication alleged harassment by the tax authorities and disappointment at his failure to sustain his successful business. Whatever the facts, his lament fed into the already toxic business environment. This had been preceded by the unsavoury defections drama in Karnataka, which brought down the Congress-JD(S) government in the state.
Finally, the Unnao rape victim, who named a BJP MLA as the perpetrator, had the car she was travelling in hit by a truck under suspicious circumstances. Her aunt died and she and her lawyer are seriously injured. Her petition to the Chief Justice of India seeking protection had been shuffled around the Supreme Court for a fortnight. The court vented its ire by ordering a time-bound inquiry, transferring cases to Delhi, laying down monetary compensation, etc. The order was a clear indictment of the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh, and by implication of the Centre for its inaction. There was also a rising unease over the unseemly rushing of major laws through Parliament, without scrutiny by parliamentary committees.
Against this backdrop came yet another statement by US President Donald Trump that he still stood ready to mediate if India and Pakistan sought his help to resolve the Kashmir dispute. On the sidelines of the Asean and the Asian Regional Forum meeting, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar told US secretary of state Mike Pompeo that it has been consistent Indian policy that disputes with Pakistan would be resolved only bilaterally, as mandated in the Shimla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration. Pakistan had been largely behaving responsibly since the re-election of the Modi government, perhaps focused more on restoring its bonhomie with the US and tweaking its Afghan strategy and Taliban card. Additionally, it was under scrutiny by the Financial Action Task Force, which in November will re-examine its compliance with sought action to dismantle terror financing. But after the Washington visit of Mr Khan and his Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, a spring returned to their steps after months of Trumpian threats and finger-pointing.
The US announcement of a $120 million package for the maintenance and upkeep of Pakistan’s F-16 fighter jets, albeit under the guise of end-use monitoring, surprised New Delhi, particularly because India’s complaints over their post-Balakot misuse against India was on the Pentagon’s table. This signalled that Mr Trump had bought the Pakistani line that they would facilitate an honourable exit of US troops from Afghanistan by compelling the Taliban to accept a peace deal as long as the US reverted to the old US-Pakistan terms of engagement, specially helping maintain a conventional military balance between India and Pakistan. The re-hyphenation of India and Pakistan in their relations with the US was unwelcome news. India had successfully countered it at the start of Barack Obama’s presidency when late ambassador Richard Holbrooke was named special envoy for Af-Pak.
The events in Jammu and Kashmir over the past few days need to be closely examined against this backdrop. First, the corps commander in the Valley and the director-general of police, at a joint press conference, claimed great success in eliminating militants and reducing their absolute numbers.
The Amarnath Yatra was under way. But inexplicably 38,000 extra security forces were rapidly inducted, including by airlifts, increasing the sense of drama. Then the nation was suddenly told of the perceived danger of terror attacks, and therefore pilgrims and tourists were asked to leave the Valley immediately. The social media soon reflected the growing chatter about the Centre planning some dramatic move like the trifurcation of Kashmir into Jammu state and two Union territories — Kashmir and Leh. But any such precipitate action to alter the constitutional provisions giving Jammu and Kashmir a special status would be ill-advised, particularly at this stage when the UN General Assembly’s high-profile session is due in September. It does explain, however, the heating up of military confrontation across the Line of Control as Pakistan would like to stir the pot by inducting militants, emboldening local resistance and fuelling possible civil unrest, sensing such a move by India.
It is possible that the government is merely preparing for state elections, as it did by the demonetisation exercise before the Uttar Pradesh elections, disrupting the finances of the Opposition parties. In an election, the BJP could capture power by sweeping Jammu and helping some new faces get elected in the Valley, with the conventional Opposition parties divided and enfeebled. On the other hand, any trifurcation move or other constitutional tampering would play into Pakistan’s hands as it would undercut the old Indian reasoning that the UN-mandated referendum was irrelevant as the people had participated repeatedly in free and fair elections. It would also defeat the argument that a multi-ethnic and multi-faith J&K was in line with India, and not theocratic, Islamic Pakistan. And despite the lingering suspicion that all this is theatre leading up to Prime Minister Modi’s August 15 Red Fort speech, or simply a distraction from negative economic news, some Pakistani mischief cannot be ruled out, emboldened as they are by President Trump’s pandering to their deepest desire to internationalise the Kashmir issue. Ironically, J&K governor Satya Pal Malik may be as clueless as the rest of India when he vows there is no constitutional putsch planned. But then he may be right, as Mark Twain said: “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.” The Indian “chappals” (sandals) seem to be taking even longer.