America’s vice president-in-waiting Mike Pence may believe president-elect Donald Trump’s “extraordinary deal-making skills” could come in handy in negotiating a settlement between India and Pakistan over Kashmir but that’s as plausible as Trump taking his twitching fingers off Twitter.
Alarm bells haven’t quite gone off because New Delhi has been caught napping, but rather since those closing in on the White House have had this tendency to speak of involving themselves in the Kashmir conundrum. In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama mused about playing mediator. A few months into his tenure, the K-word virtually vanished from public conversations on subcontinental subjects. These are dreams that inhabitants of the Oval Office quickly wake from.
Nor should there be particular palpitations over the telephonic gushfest between Trump and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. That was probably one of those times when his minders weren’t conferenced in. That invitation to visit Islamabad will soon enough get a security reality check. Much of the mush will be lost in transition.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conversation with Trump was deeper, and Trump discussed issues rather than ad libbing adjectives as he’s prone to do when he’s lost for words or ideas. This was evident from the disjointed nature of his primary campaign speeches and those during the process of the general, as his lines were scripted and read off a teleprompter.
There are already multiple points of contact in place. Even if India could lose a booster in Richard Verma, the US ambassador (those bottles of champagne on election night remained corked and unpopped in the embassy on Shanti Path), the incoming administration already has two Indian-Americans in its ranks, including Nikki Haley, as friendly a face as New Delhi could have wished for. Of course, one pertinent piece of the puzzle remains missing — the identity of the next secretary of state. However, there is the expectation that like Modi has forged foreign policy rather than external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, Trump will fashion his own.
Trump’s taking of a call from the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and following up with a Tweetstorm ranting at China, is actually the most significant sign of comfort for South Block. During the waning months of the Obama presidency, China’s regional influence was waxing, with countries like The Philippines and its own Trump-like president, Rodrigo Duterte, believing more in Beijing than Washington. And if Trump can actually “get along” with Vladimir Putin and Russia, India will be thrilled to see Moscow moving away from its recent drift towards China. That has led to Russia to gravitate towards Pakistan, a turn that’s been difficult to digest for India. Detente between Washington and Moscow will not only curb Beijing’s ambitions but serve as an antacid for the recent heartburn. That malaise, for the time being, has crossed the border, as the phrases used by party organs like “diplomatic rookie” and “outrageous remarks” indicate. That’s the sort of language Trump will recognise.
If he follows through on his intent of dragooning the dragon, New Delhi will nod in appreciation. But he isn’t even president yet, and again, whether the reality of office will mature his mercurial manner remains a mystery.
What could really have riled Trump, though, was that Modi won Time magazine’s online readers’ poll for its annual Person of the Year. Through the presidential campaign cycle, Trump bragged about winning every online poll. He spoke of being on the cover of Time magazine almost as frequently as he promised the build a “big, beautiful wall”. This double whammy must have hurt.
That may sound like a joke but with Trump you never really know what to take seriously. The fragile nature of his ego means it’s easy to shatter even through satire on Saturday Night Live.
Fortunately the magazine itself did the obvious and selected the next POTUS as its POTY, the man it deems will be the president of the ‘Divided States of America.”
In India’s wonk world, though, there may be some unanimity — if Trump turns out to be a Chinese checker, the regional equation is in for a favourable recalibration.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal