India-US Dialogue: Was Jaishankar ‘Myopic’ in Not Meeting Jayapal?

Diplomacy demands engagement. And MEA Jaishankar chose to not engage with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image of MEA S Jaishankar & US Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal used for representational purposes.
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Snapshot
  • MEA S Jaishankar reportedly ‘abruptly cancelled’ his meeting with senior members of the US Congress after they refused to meet demands to ‘exclude’ Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal
  • Pramila Jayapal has previously called out the Indian government’s actions in Jammu & Kashmir
  • Commentators and Persons of Indian Origin like Ashley Tellis feel that S Jaishankar was ‘shortsighted’ in not meeting the Congress which has been a bastion of strong support for India

Clearly, the 2+2 dialogue in Washington, DC on Wednesday, 18 December, was underwhelming. So, was it responsible for Union External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s ‘tantrum’ against Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal ?

According to the Washington Post, the External Affairs Minister (EAM) “abruptly cancelled” the meeting with senior members of the US Congress after they refused demands to exclude Jayapal from their delegation. As a result, Congressman Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called off the meeting.

S Jaishankar later told the Indian media that he felt that Jayapal was being unfair in her report on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, and in characterising the Indian government’s actions there.

In view of that he said, “I have no interest in meeting her.” Earlier this month, Jayapal had introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives urging India to lift the restrictions on communications in J&K.

‘Not Engaging With US Congress is Myopic’

Jaishankar’s action was questioned by Ashley Tellis, an India scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who said that “not engaging with Congress, which has traditionally been a bastion of strong support for India, is shortsighted.” It was also criticised by other PIO (Person of Indian Origin) politicians like Kamala Harris , Democratic Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and other commentators.

There are several troubling aspects to Jaishankar’s action. First, the job of a diplomat, which Jaishankar is by training, is to not just shore up friendly opinion, but critically, to reach out to reshape or neutralise the views of adversaries. In other words, engagement is the first word in the dictionary of diplomacy, and here, the minister has clearly been a cop out.

Has MEA Jaishankar Caught the BJP ‘Bug’?

But Jaishankar, as Tellis noted, is an “incredibly thoughtful and articulate” person. So why this action? There could be many reasons for this. First, Jaishankar and the government have decided that in the present deeply polarised political atmosphere in the US, Indian interests would be better served by hanging on to Trump’s Republican Administration which seems to be on course to be re-elected.  In any case, the historical Ministry of External Affairs’ view of the US is that the Republicans ‘deliver’, while the Democrats tend to ‘preach’.

The second possibility is that Jaishankar has now caught the BJP ‘bug’, where negative feedback is not considered important.

From the ‘Big Boss’ onward, the government seems averse to dissenting voices or contrarian views.

The third possibility is, of course, that Jaishankar was reacting to the way his maiden ‘2+2’ talks went. As it is the second round of the dialogue that concluded in Washington, DC on Wednesday, fell through the cracks of the news-sphere — the impeachment proceedings against President Trump, and the widespread political protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) hogged all the attention.

Focus on Kashmir & Religious Freedom in India

Whatever may have been said in the joint statement or public remarks, the subtext of the second ‘2+2’ dialogue that concluded in Washington, DC on Wednesday, was religious freedom in India, and the situation in Kashmir.

It is evident from the remark of a ‘senior State Department official’ who briefed the media after the meeting, that this issue was not quite swept under the carpet. As the official noted: “ I think Secretary Pompeo was quite clear, that we care deeply about the right of minorities… and the need to protect religious freedom.” He did soften the blow by noting that a “debate was going on in India” over this legislation (the Citizenship Amendment Act) which would be reviewed by the courts.

In response to another question on Kashmir, the official said that the United States remains concerned over “the prolonged detentions of political leaders as well as other residents of the Valley,” and the restrictions on cell phones and internet. Asked whether any ultimatum was given on this, he again evaded by saying that the issues are being “debated” and “reviewed by the judiciary.” He did, however, concede that the issues of the CAA and Kashmir were, indeed, discussed in the meeting.

As the official himself, somewhat lamely, concluded that while a range of issues are discussed in such meetings, “the actual 2+2’s agenda is more focused on the Indo-Pacific and military inter-operability and our security initiatives.”

The two sides put out a 7-page joint statement, but the US also put out a one-page highlights document on the talks which focused on their decision “to work together in support of a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.” Along with this, there were a grab-bag of issues relating to regional and global threats, terrorism, disaster relief and so on in which the two would cooperate.

What’s New In This Year’s ‘2+2’? Not Much

The second issue the highlights document focused on was the “21st century defense partnership.” This highlighted their first tri-services exercise and the various “defense enabling agreements” to promote defence trade and collaboration between the private sectors of the two sides.

Beyond this, there seemed to be little new in this year’s ‘2+2’. Last year, the signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and the announcement of the tri-service exercise were the highlights of the talks. The two sides did sign the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) but this is an enabling agreement more than anything else. It depends vitally on the interest that the Indian private sector will show in collaborating with US defence firms. The problem, however, is that the acute scarcity of funds have severely constrained Indian defence acquisitions.

The Limits of the India-US Relationship

What is evident is that even though the two sides have excellent official relations, both are coming to terms with the limits of their relationship. On one hand, the US is understanding that India has a limited appetite to take on China. On the other, the US has not quite moved to redefine the Indo-Pacific to incorporate Indian interests in the western Indian Ocean.

Further, India is learning that China remains an important economic destination for the US, one that could become even more so after the Phase I trade deal.

Equally significant is the fact that India and the US have not been able to arrive at a closure to their trade and tariff differences. These may appear trivial compared to the US-China dispute, but it is important enough to add dissonance in their relationship.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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