India must continue to engage with all, including critics, while pushing its own narrative. The test of diplomacy is in opening closed minds. India must engage with leaders of both parties in the US

by Vivek Katju

Defence minister Rajnath Singh and external affairs minister S Jaishankar visited Washington DC last week for the second round of the India-United States (US) 2+2 dialogue. The discussions with their US counterparts were substantive and testify to the comprehensive and positive advance in bilateral ties. Significantly, and in an indication of the warmth of the relationship, President Donald Trump spent 40 minutes with the two ministers.

The same signal was given by the Americans in agreeing to calling on Pakistan, by name, in the joint statement, to take “immediate, sustained and irreversible action to ensure that no territory under its control is used for terrorism against other countries in any manner..”. This, at a time, when the US continues to need Pakistan to address the situation in Afghanistan.

Jaishankar, who spent a major part of his diplomatic career in nurturing the India-US relationship, could take satisfaction at its current strength and that there is bipartisan support for the deepening of India-US ties. The external affairs minister would, at the same time, be aware that it is important for India that bilateral ties are not viewed from the lens of US party politics. It is, therefore, important for Indian diplomacy to be actively engaged with the leadership of both parties. In this context, a constant dialogue with different sections of opinion on the Hill, including with those who do not see eye to eye with Indian policies and positions, has to be maintained. After all, the test of diplomacy does not lie in preaching to the converted, but in opening “closed” minds.

It is customary for visiting foreign ministers to meet congressional leaders during their visits to the US capital. Jaishankar sought meetings with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee leaders. He met the former, but declined to meet the latter. This, because the Indian origin Pramila Jayapal, who is a member of the House but not of its Foreign Affairs Committee, would have been present at the meeting. Jaishankar clarified he had no interest in meeting her. It is obvious that Jaishankar’s attitude towards Jayapal was on account of a draft resolution on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) that she has tabled in the House, and which has been referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The draft resolution urges India to lift communications restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and to release detainees. While it makes no mention of the constitutional changes of August 5, it takes note of the restrictions that were put in place on that date. The draft resolution contains formulations that are offensive to India for they do not take cognisance of the security situation in the state that has resulted from Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross-border terrorism, a fact the 2+2 joint statement itself recognises. Reports indicate that Jayapal has not been willing to truly engage India’s US-based diplomats on the resolution, thereby, perhaps, showing a biased approach. Jaishankar also correctly noted that the draft resolution does not show a correct understanding of either the J&K situation or of India’s actions.

Government sources reportedly maintain that it was wrong of the House leadership to insist on Jayapal’s presence, especially as she is not a committee member and was not in the meeting’s original list. In normal circumstances, it is not for one side to prescribe who will be present in the other side’s delegation. This is in keeping with standard diplomatic practice. It is this position that the House leadership obviously took, and which some leading US senators have also taken. Thus, while a committee’s leader cannot pressure a visiting minister to meet a member the minister does not want to, he can hardly give up the principle that it will decide their delegation’s constitution.

India’s traditional diplomacy has been based on engagement with all, including with critics. It has never imposed pre-conditions for dialogue unless it is with a state like Pakistan, which has undertaken violence and terrorism. Indian diplomacy has also been largely deliberate, calibrated and never of the “bash on, regardless” school. Are the times now changing, and are these changes being reflected in India’s diplomacy too?

As India’s global interaction increases in keeping with the demands of its expanding national interests, Indian diplomacy has to become deft and nimble. It cannot rely on exclusion without surpassing reasons to shun groups and individuals. It has to harness communication skills in its tool-kit that will enable it to be ahead of the curve in getting its narrative out when there is engagement with critics of government policy.

Thus, if Jaishankar apprehended that Jayapal’s presence would drive the Foreign Affairs committee meeting inevitably to an acrimonious discussion on the detentions and the communications restrictions and that reports of that discussion will play badly both in India and elsewhere, he could have considered appropriately putting India’s version out instead of ducking the meeting itself.