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Where angels fear to tread

Karan Thapar

Oh dear, what a frightful kerfuffle! Donald Trump’s comments claiming Narendra Modi asked him to “mediate” or “arbitrate” over Kashmir are a huge embarrassment, and a significant setback to the bilateral relationship, but also utterly unbelievable. Except for the fact that we have all heard and seen him, you could legitimately ask if Trump made it up, or was fantasising, or simply confused about what Modi had actually said.

Unfortunately, try as it will, the government can’t dismiss what’s happened. For a start, Trump’s comments were made in the company of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan at a press conference at the Oval Office. Second, they were a direct and immediate response to Khan’s plea for mediation. “The US can play the most important role in bringing peace to the subcontinent,” he said. “Only President Trump can bring the two sides together … we’ve tried our best. Now I’m hoping President Trump will push this process.” And then, third, there’s what Trump actually said.

Trump spoke about a conversation he claimed he had with Modi two weeks earlier. This, presumably, was at the G-20 in Osaka, where, according to Ivanka Trump, they had “a one-on-one meeting” – in which case only the two of them know what was said. Now, according to Trump, they were talking about “this subject” when Modi asked, “Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?” Trump asked for clarity. “Where?” “Kashmir” was Modi’s succinct-but-pointed reply. And then Trump added: “If I can help, I would love to be a mediator … if you want me to mediate or arbitrate, I would be willing to do it.”

Hearing it from Trump, it seems pretty explicit and categorical. He went into considerable detail. It wasn’t a throwaway line or a brief reference. And, remember, he’s the President of the United States, the most important man in the most powerful country in the world. Yet, I find it hard to accept. Not for a moment am I prepared to believe any Indian prime minister would ask for intervention in Kashmir. It’s so obviously and totally a reversal of India’s well established seven-decade-old stand this could not even have been said in error. And yet, and yet, and yet…

So what did happen? I’m pretty sure dear Donald, who’s prone to error and confusion, yet always cocksure he’s got it right, simply misunderstood. But Trump is also fond of stepping-in where angels fear to tread. He believes he can solve the most intractable of problems. Kashmir’s a challenge he could not resist. So he embraced it. Frankly, I think it’s as simple as that: A comedy of errors that turned into an unforeseen tragedy with Donald playing both hero and clown.

For Pakistan, this will feel like a diplomatic coup. In fact, Khan can claim his Washington visit has been a roaring success. For very similar reasons, the Opposition in India is rampant. Whether he stumbled or not, Modi has fallen into a hole, or, to be honest, Trump pushed him in. He’ll get out of it fast enough, but the stains on his clothes, and the bruises on his feelings, could be visible for a while.

However, one thing’s certain. The world will not believe what Trump alleged. The chancelleries of Europe, as much as the kingdoms of the Gulf, know India’s position on third-party intervention is unshakeable. They realise Trump goofed and, to spare him his blushes, they’ll be happy to forget about it. And what about Trump himself? He’s unlikely to apologise or accept he made a mistake, but will he seek some way of making up? Possibly, but that’s still a guess.

The biggest lesson is undoubtedly for Modi. Hereafter he should be very careful about what he says to Trump. In fact, it might be wise to ensure there’s always someone else in the room. And avoid hugging him! Trump doesn’t like it and, anyway, he’s best kept at arm’s
length.

(HT Media)

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