There is some worry that the Democrats would be against Indian security interests. The next few weeks are crucial. Who must India engage with and what should it be talking about?

Both US President-elect Joe Biden and his Vice President-elect Kamala Harris had much of India concerned by their earlier statements on Jammu & Kashmir and Article 370. Harris was on record to have said: “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping a track on the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.” She was responding to a question about alleged human rights abuses in Kashmir and the restrictions imposed following the revocation of Article 370. In June 2020, Biden made somewhat similar comments. 

A na├»ve deduction from these was broadly assumed by many in India, that the leadership of the Democratic Party of the US would largely be against Indian security interests, the flip side being that this combination would be pro-Pakistan. Considering this as just too simplistic a strategic deduction, I wrote a fortnight ago in this paper: “The outlook of a candidate or his running mate before a successful poll does not necessarily become policy as close advisers, academic experts and others temper that opinion once in office.” India can internationally hold its own on its J&K policy but early engagement with the new administration and better attention towards narrative control is needed.

The next few weeks and the opening days of the new administration are the time for engagement to make a transformational change in the mindset of the Democrats, many hundreds of whom will be in positions of power and influence over the next four years. Who must India engage with and what should it be talking about? India hired a lobbying firm for three months in December 2019 to assist with the outreach and mobilisation of positive opinion on Capitol Hill, which was perceived to have suffered following the constitutional decisions of 5 August 2019.

We need to start afresh by adding the weight of the Indian-American community, business linkages, think tank interaction and teams of informed diplomats and strategic affairs experts, with a lobbying firm in tow. The focus at the outset must be security and the strategic relationship. The momentum of the achievements of the third 2+2 Indo-US Strategic Dialogue must not be allowed to languish. Even as Exercise Malabar continues to make waves in the waters of the Indian Ocean, the larger context of the Chinese threat at the northern borders and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and proxy war in J&K must be realised by the majority of the leaders in the US who will play prominent roles hereafter. Important Republican legislators too need to be constantly engaged and briefed.

Talking to US functionaries, what is most evident is that India often continues to be viewed through the prism of the Cold War. It’s a difficult stigma to recover from even when there is enough evidence of the change in times—there needs to be a change in attitude and mindset, notwithstanding the progressive Indo-US strategic partnership that is underway. Not many US officials look at India’s consistent record of fighting sponsored terror; first in Punjab and then in J&K and elsewhere in India.

Their vision is often coloured by the Pakistan-led war against the Russian presence in Afghanistan in the 80s and then its reluctant assistance in the Global War on Terrorism in Afghanistan and within Pakistani territory since 9/11. These are two clear phases of apparent Pakistani ‘cooperation’ that overshadow the US world view about violent extremism. That view has never sufficiently allowed itself to look beyond and see how one of the post-Cold War manifestations of extremist violence was first felt in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in India and at the behest of Pakistan.

While India has largely succeeded in neutralising Pakistan’s intent of destabilisation of J&K through a series of hard and soft measures, the lack of an official line of US cognisance of the same has allowed Islamabad to wriggle out of American scrutiny many times. Pakistan’s geostrategic location bears scope for future assistance to the US in the pursuit of the latter’s strategic interests in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Indian diplomacy and informal outreach have to break through the shackles of these traditional chains of belief that hold back clearer US perception—that Afghanistan could soon be history and that China is the elephant in the room for which having India on board is clearly more advantageous. The issue of human rights came into the limelight at the behest of America in the early 90s. The US itself is hardly virtuous in its approach if examined in depth, but a strange mindset remains in place about nations that have had problems of internal security. In J&K, the Indian Army’s people-friendly practices have received much recognition.

However, these have been insufficiently recorded and projected internationally. Nor have there been any voices in the diplomatic domain that endeavoured to efficiently counter the vague perceptions and allegations against India’s record. The Indian Army has a conceptual understanding of the doctrine of respect for human rights and outreach to communities. These have been insufficiently projected at the strategic level and understanding in the diplomatic domain has been extremely limited. This needs perceptional understanding and some display of energy to ensure that it becomes a part of the Indian communication efforts to sensitise the right quarters in the new US administration.

Actually, for very little reason, human rights has become a millstone around India’s neck, when the record of the government and its agencies has actually been extremely good. The population control measures in place after revocation of Article 370 are those that are not unusual in a proxy conflict zone.

They are non-coercive and have progressively been diluted with democratic rights on the way to being restored, something that has always been India’s strength. Full restoration of mobile communication in Kashmir well before Inauguration Day could help in conveying the right message and will lose little in terms of security in Kashmir. A communication outreach blitzkrieg to the US by people of credit with all hands on deck is the need of the moment and will fetch dividends through a far better understanding of India’s point of view.