[Jaishankar-Blinken talks at Hyderabad House]
It is not a coincidence that the announcement in Washington of the appointment of the Indian origin lawyer Rashad Hussain as Ambassador at-large for Religious Freedoms followed in the wake of the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s India trip and meeting with his Indian opposite number, S. Jaishankar. The US side had indicated that the issue of the deteriorating human rights situation in India would be raised, and Blinken did so. and tried to preempt the obvious counterstrike by accepting that the conditions and treatment of Blacks and other minorities in America is nothing to crow about. In this context, Jaishankar’s combatively framing the discussion in terms of how the two countries handle their diversity were apt tactics. That said, and the brazen hypocrisy of it notwithstanding, the US government will continue attacking India on this front. And one can expect Hussain will be mouthing off, making visits to India every time there’s a communal incident or eruption, and testifying before committees of the US Congress that will increasingly grate on Delhi’s nerves. Best for Jaishankar & Co., to brace for this onslaught.
Having long ago set itself up as “the shining house on the hill”, the US has habitually worn its democratic system and values on its sleeve even when its human rights record at home was abysmal. In the Cold War years before the 1965 Civil Rights Act, Blacks in the US did not have the right to vote and, in the American South, lived in an apartheid-like system of racial discrimination, including separate public utilities for Blacks. All the while Radio Free Europe, with powerful transmitters on the Warsaw Pact periphery, interspersed with Jazz and popular American music, broadcast 24/7 the virtues of freedom to the peoples of Eastern Europe, supposedly under the Soviet yoke. One thing the US doen’t display in its public posture is a sense of irony.
This to say that the Narendra Modi government cannot but expect to be at the receiving end of bad press in the US and the West, especially if it is unable to prevail on BJP-run state governments to tamp down severely on the extremist Hindu loony fringe. The RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s attempts at narrowing the communal divide by saying Hindus and Muslims and other minorities of the subcontinent share the same DNA, and hence are brothers albeit with different religious affiliations will hopefully contain the more rabid elements, and prevent them from periodically providing Ambassador Hussain the stick to beat India with.
It is clear the Biden Administration seems intent on keeping the human rights situation in India and the geostrategic imperatives of collaborating with Delhi to keep China leashed in the Indo-Pacific, in different policy baskets. In other words, Washington hopes to be free to criticize India in the same way it does China on the matter of the East Turkestani Uyghur Muslims, say, but expects that India, recognizing the larger game in play, will ride out the American barbs and militarily cooperate with it. The onus is thus on Delhi to accommodate Washington, and not the other way around.
There’s a problem here. One hopes Jaishankar made it plain to Blinken that this double-faced approach won’t do. This is no small thing, not something Delhi can safely ignore, because it undermines Modi’s central premise for his pro-America, pro-West stance, namely, that India is a part of a concert of democracies facing an authoritarian China in Asia and the world, even if it is obvious that Indian democracy has still very, very far to go to maturation. But whatever the quality of its democracy, India is still nominally a democratic state in the developing world. This counts, but not for much.
The ruction over India’s democratic status apart, how did the rest of the July 28 Jaishankar-Blinken meeting go? Quad, Afghanistan and covid were reportedly the three main issues on the table. Re: Quad — surely any talks over China and the Indo-Pacific would have to be contextualized by the discussions Wendy Sherman, the US Deputy Secretary of State had with the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi July 25-26. This is what the US State Departgment spokesman Ned Price had to say: “The Deputy Secretary underscored that the United States welcomes the stiff competition between our countries—and that we intend to continue to strengthen our own competitive hand—but that we do not seek conflict with the PRC.” Had he stopped at strenghtening America’s “competitive hand”-bit, that’d have been fine. But his declaration that the US “does not seek conflict” raises the legitimate question about how far Washington would go in avoiding it? The most the US will do is send warships, on ocassion an aircraft carrier group on FONOPS (freedom of navigation patrols) through the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea or, as happened some three weeks ago, deploy 25 F-22s from air wings in Alaska and Hawaii to Guam for in-theatre operations. These are largely symbolic gestures, not real commitment to fight.
America’s will to stand up to China is as suspect as India’s under Prime Minister Modi. Except, India is a frontline state and has much more at stake vis a vis China than does the US, and a much smaller margin of error. This isn’t helped by Delhi’s ridiculous optimism coveyed to the press about the 12th meeting of army commanders in Chushul leading to the PLA withdrawing from the Y-junction on the Depsang. It marked the kind of unrealism attending on Modi’s China policy dictated by that bunch of proven appeasers — the “China Study Group/Circle” whose list of flawed recommendations over the years would shame amateur sinologists everywhere.
Re: Afghanistan — Blinken may have responded to Jaishankar’s apprehensions at the turn of the events in the aftermath of America’s precipitate withdrawal by assuring the latter that the US means to continue supporting th Afghan National Army (ANA) by bombing and rocketing Taliban concentrations preparing for attacks on ANA garrisoned provincial capitals, cities and district capitals. There is also a mystery about where the attacking aircraft are taking off from — there have already been several strike sorties to-date. It can’t be carrier aircraft from ships stationed in the north Arabian Sea because they don’t have the range with full ordnance load to reach Taliban targets and get back. Bahrain and the base at Duqm in Oman too can be ruled out for the same reasons. There’s absolutely no doubt then that — notwisthanding promises to Mullah Ghani Baradar, the chief Taliban negotiator that Pakistan won’t allow any foreign power to use Pakistani military facilities against the Afghan Taliban, Islamabad has been arm-twisted by Washington to permit American combat aircraft to use the PAF base at Jacobabad for their anti-Taliban flights. The Jacobabad base has been available to the US Air Force/Navy/Special Forces for a long time now.
Blinken may have queried Jaishankar about what Delhi proposes to do to protect its investments in Afghanistan. Other than some reports in the Pakistani media that the Modi regime has dispatched some 3,000 troops — army or paramil isn’t clear, the Indian government’s response to appeals from President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul for military aid and assistance has teetered on uncertainty. Vivek Katju, a former foreign service colleague of Jaishankar’s, calls it “strategic paralysis”. The paralysis is less over what and how much of various military items to ship to Kabul; more over the substantial policy to adopt with regard to Afghanistan’s future and what role if any to play in shaping it.
India has a choice of some Taliban factions to support, fianancially and otherwise, but no real prospect of getting a regime of its choice. The existing Ashraf Ghani dispensation on the other hand is just the kind of progressive, liberal, government it’d like to see flourish in that country. It makes no sense for Delhi to support a Taliban govt of any kind but it makes ample good sense to try and sustain to the extent it can the Ghani government and, in parallel, begin putting back together the old Northern Alliance, just in case, the Taliban push to take over the cities and major towns and Kabul becomes shove. This will be the bloodiest phase of the underway civil war. The northern Alliance will have to be helped in every possible way to take back the border posts the Taliban have captured on the Amu Darya River accessing Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in particular, and to join with Iran in fielding a substantial and well armed Hazara shia militia to keep northwestern Afghanistan out of Taliban hands. The numerous forums, including the Russia-Afghanistan-Pakistan “troika”, where there’s endless talking, seem to be of little use under the circumstances, and India loses nothing to be no part of any of them.
Re: COVID — Whatever Blinken may have said, with the Delta variant of Corona virus now spreading like wildfire in America, it is doubtful President Biden will agree to increase exports of vaccine making materials for India to ramp up its vaccine production. One wishes the Modi govt, instead of going with begging bowls to the US and the Western pharma – Pfizer, et al for the vaccines, had invested more fully in the Indian Company, Bharat Pharmaceuticals, to scale up its production of its indigenously researched, designed, tested and winning product, Covaxin, as the low cost and effective vaccine alternative for India and the developing world.