by Seema Sirohi

These are testy times for both democracies. Polarised politics have stretched them to the maximum. To conduct regular business of State against this dark background and growing concerns about where Narendra Modi’s India is going and where Donald Trump’s US stands — or doesn’t —is not easy. Yet, last week, professionalism of both sides was on display as they completed the second round of the ‘2+2 dialogue’.

They recorded major progress across domains, announced new initiatives, agreed to a wider concept of what constitutes the Indo-Pacific, and signed important agreements, including one on sharing of classified information between private defence sector companies.

Trump found time to meet external affairs minister S Jaishankar and defence minister Rajnath Singh, even as the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives was getting ready to impeach him later in the day. That’s notable.

But a meeting that wasn’t held overshadowed the many that were. An important interaction on Capitol Hill was cancelled because of a surprise guest — Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat and vocal critic of India’s Kashmir policies. She has moved a House resolution demanding all restrictions be lifted in Kashmir ASAP.

Jaishankar was scheduled to meet the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) leadership. But as things transpired, Jayapal suddenly appeared on the list of attendees — she is not a member of HFAC. Apparently, the request to attend was initiated by her office two days before and accepted by HFAC chairman Eliot Engel.

The Indian side objected, tempers flared, accusations swirled and confusion reigned. Some bridges were burned. Engel refused to exclude Jayapal as requested — an impossible demand — and cancelled the meeting. The story was promptly leaked to The Washington Post, a fact that reinforced the feeling on the Indian side that Jayapal’s idea was to embarrass the minister, not to conduct a dialogue.

Even if the meeting were held with Jayapal attending, there was no guarantee she would have kept the discussions private and not taken to Twitter to pronounce judgement. It was a PR problem either way.

The chronology is important to fully understand where things went awry. The Indian embassy made the initial request for a meeting to HFAC in the first week of December. Both sides agreed to keep it small — the chairs and ranking members of HFAC and the Asia subcommittee.

Jayapal was not on the list. The Indian embassy was told only on December 16 — two days before the actual meeting — that she was invited. By most definitions, it would be considered a ‘last minute’ inclusion, which created a sense of an ‘ambush’.

Things went south from there and that’s where we are. There is rancour on both sides. Congressional insiders are angry because Engel, as a matter of courtesy, had agreed to postpone the ‘mark-up’ of Jayapal’s resolution until after the lawmakers heard from Jaishankar.

And, continued attempts to assign blame are only adding fuel, further complicating the picture. The result: Jayapal’s resolution will now definitely be marked up, most likely next month, unless there’s a Christmas miracle. It picked up 10 more co-sponsors in the immediate aftermath of the J+J episode.

From India’s point of view, it would be best if it didn’t come to the House floor for a vote. It’s not difficult to imagine that more Democrats may vote for it now to send a message, especially if political detainees are still not freed and internet restrictions remain.

Jayapal has somehow managed to keep the resolution alive. After struggling to find co-sponsors, she has enlisted 29 members, including two Republicans. Continued detention of Kashmiri politicians and widespread protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) have solidified support.

But it’s also worth remembering that some liberal Dems are really not interested in dialogue. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was hardly an example of openness during the infamous hearing in October.

Jayapal, too, attended both Kashmir-related hearings, but mainly to present her critique and leave. She didn’t stay to listen to the other side. Many ‘concerned’ Dems also haven’t responded to the Indian embassy’s repeated offers to help their constituents connect with family members back home.

So, instead of being a punching bag for what was seen as agenda-driven politics of a few lawmakers, the Indian side decided to ‘punch first’. The wisdom of the action is debatable. But Jaishankar was clear he didn’t want to meet people “who have already made up their minds”.