India’s Foreign Minister Leads Diplomatic Offensive in US

India has conducted an unprecedented diplomatic campaign in America over the past 10 days to try to win international understanding and support for its controversial announcement on August 5 that it is cancelling Jammu & Kashmir’s special status and imposing a state-wide security clampdown, which is now being eased.

Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mega rally with US President Donald Trump in Houston on September 22 and his speeches at United Nations meetings, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the foreign minister, has had an astonishingly large number of public appearances with virtually all the top foreign affairs think tanks, plus other audiences, in New York and Washington.

Formerly a top diplomat who retired as foreign secretary in January 2018, Jaishankar has been spelling out how an increasingly strong and confident India is adopting its own style of foreign policy – and how the much-criticized Kashmir move fits in with India’s continuing development because it was an attempt to solve a 65-year old problem.

Jaishankar’s foreign policy statements emphasized India’s “multi-alignment,” which means “you keep your relationships well-oiled with all the major power centers.” The country “which does that best actually has political positioning in the world which may be superior to its actual structural strengths,” he said at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

That may not please Trump or China’s Xi Jinping – Trump wants exclusivity and Xi does not want India getting close to the US – but it is a notable updating of India’s Cold War policy of non-alignment.

“World affairs will see a proliferation of ‘frenemies,’ he told the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They will emerge in both categories: allies who publicly turn on each other, or competitors who are compelled to make common cause on issues. The game has now become one of positioning and optimizing.”

The remarks put the Trump-Modi Houston extravaganza in a non-aligned perspective, especially because, just three weeks after that event, Modi will be feting Xi – surely India’s leading “frenemy” – in the Tamil Nadu temple town of Mamallapuram on October 12-13.

Jaishankar confirmed while he was in America that India is buying a large-scale S400 missile defense system from Russia despite strong objections from the US. He said he hoped to persuade the US not to retaliate and impose sanctions on India.

Sovereign rights

“We have always maintained that what we buy — the sourcing of military equipment — is very much a sovereign right,” Jaishankar told reporters just before he met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “We would not like any state to tell us what to buy or not to buy from Russia, any more than we would like any state to tell us to buy or not buy from America.”

Jaishankar was not shy of going public with his think-tank events – at least one of the host organizers was asked to turn what was to have been a background session into a filmed on-the-record open occasion. (Several of the events are available on YouTube, and some on the organizations’ websites). The Times of India has reported that Jaishankar’s other engagements included nearly 100 diplomatic meetings.

Modi brought Jaishankar back from retirement to perform this role, spelling out India’s emerging foreign policy with jargon-free analysis while also explaining – extolling – Modi’s domestic policies and achievements.

Jaishankar set the tone for talking about the controversial cancelling of J&K’s article 370 semi-autonomous status when he said: “What we have presumed to be intractable challenges will have to be addressed, not ducked.”

“You had a state which was socially increasingly less aligned with the rest of the country….pretty much every progressive legislation in the country over the past 20 years did not get to be enacted and applied in Kashmir. And all of this really contributed to our political security challenge” he said at the CSIS.

J&K had not had the rest of India’s “economic activity and economic energy” which meant “less job opportunities, more sense of alienation, a sense of separatism, and therefore a climate for terrorism from across the border,” was how he put it at the CFR. It did not have India’s “progressive legislation” such as rights to work, education, and information, nor laws on domestic violence, juvenile-protection, representation of women, equal property and between men and women.

This “allowed really sort of a narrow elite to arbitrage this 370, to monopolize political power, to create a sort of a closed-loop politics” with a “vested interest in keeping alive separatist sentiment.”

Ignoring the primary fact that ending the special status fits the BJP’s overriding aim to end Muslims’ special privileges, Jaishankar said “Our expectation today is….that we will be able to push investments, economic activities, into Kashmir, that we will be able to frankly change the economic landscape, change the social landscape.”

Jaishankar put an even more optimistic spin on the heavy security clampdown with mass house-arrests and restrictions on communications that has horrified international opinion.

“Our challenge today is ….to ensure that this works on the ground” and to “manage this transition situation without loss of life” by restricting “gathering of people and communication”. He justified the closing down of internet and social media because in the past they had been “used to radicalize and to mobilize.”

India needs that message to be spelled out because there is growing international concern about the restrictions on freedom of movement and communications.

Frank Wisner, a former US ambassador to India and longtime advocate for the country, reflected this when he closed the CFR session:

“Well, I think you’ve sensed, since you’ve been here, a very high degree of concern…..The responsibility lies with India to achieve the goals that you’ve set out tonight. And we all wish Kashmiris well and you well in re-finding stability in that state, building a different future.”

Jaishankar even managed to deflect a question about “the erosion of the constitutional commitment to a secular state and the rise of a very politicized Hindu nationalism,” which is central to the BJP ethos.

“I don’t accept that secularism is under threat…secularism was not promoted by a law or by a constitutional belief,” he said. “It was promoted by the ethos of the society [which] was not secular. No law, no constitutional provision, would have ensured it. And I don’t think the ethos of the society has changed. I think the ethos of India and the Hindu ethos of India is actually very secular. It’s very pluralistic.”

What had changed was that economic power had moved from urban centres to Hindi-speaking rural areas. With that last answer, Jaishankar’s presentations lost some of their overall credibility.

He had delivered an expert view on India’s foreign policy stance and a rational analysis of the Kashmir policy but he took no account of the fact that Amit Shah, the home minister and BJP president and Modi’s closest ally, is certainly not behaving as though the Hindu ethos is very secular and pluralistic.

Currently, Shah is stirring up emotions against Muslims with a Citizenship Bill and National Register of Citizens (NRC) that treats Muslims differently from other suspected illegal immigrants.

Jaishankar was demonstrating that he has moved on from being a respected foreign affairs expert and has become, as a member of the BJP government, a full-time politician.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.