In what appeared to be an abrupt but not entirely unexpected move, Narendra Modi’s government in India earlier this week rescinded Kashmir’s special state status
and brought it under the purview of the federal government.
The constitutional change came only weeks after President Donald Trump offered to mediate between India and Pakistan that the former flatly rejected. The Indian government also did not notify the United States of its decision ahead of time, which is unusual considering the far-reaching impact of such a change.
Taken together, these developments also signal a potential change in how India deals with the United States. It would be prudent for the Trump administration to anticipate what may arise in the future and respond accordingly.
Washington should be mindful of the fact that India appears less willing to compromise with its so-called “strategic independence.” This doctrine has allowed policymakers in Delhi to craft policies that best suit the country’s interests. As I wrote in these pages before, many in the establishment find it unpalatable to do what Washington wants for Delhi.
For instance, despite reservations from some quarters, Narendra Modi’s government complied with U.S. demands and pulled the plug on Iranian oil imports. Given the friendly relationship that India maintains with Iran, it is not hard to imagine the difficulty it faced in making that call.
Indians were not pleased when Trump mocked their contribution to the rebuilding efforts of Afghanistan. It is unlikely that they would increase their involvement in the war-torn country either by footing the reconstruction bill or by other measures just because Trump desired as much.
Perhaps Delhi’s change in attitude towards Washington came into full display when it levied tariffs on selected American products in response to U.S. tariffs on aluminum and cancelation of a trade incentive.
Mike Pompeo also experience a glimpse of it during his visit in June. His Indian counterpart flatly said “no” to his warning against India’s purchase of the Russian-made missile defense system. It should not take much for a shrewd diplomat like Pompeo to decipher the message a second-term Modi government was broadcasting to Washington.
Nevertheless, when Trump made his solicitous offer to act as an interlocutor between the two rival countries, India knew it had to send an unambiguous message. It is not to suggest that India’s decision to incorporate Kashmir into federal rule was a direct response to Trump. After all, it is now clear that the Modi government was working on it for quite some time. But reports suggest that Trump’s comments might have only accelerated what was in the making.
The timing and kerfuffle of Trump’s proposal also worked in Delhi’s favor. By fundamentally changing Kashmir’s fate and the geopolitical landscape, Delhi was able to demonstrate that India remained steadfast to its policy of non-interference by a third country. Also, by not giving the United States a heads up and by briefing the U.S. ambassador alongside the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council on this development, Delhi demonstrated it could not care less about how Washington would respond.
On strict legal terms, the United States cannot strongly react to what is India’s “internal matter.” But Kashmir is unlike any other domestic issue. Two nuclear powers lay claim on its sovereignty, with another controlling a portion of it. India and Pakistan fought three times over the valley and went to the brink of another war in February this year.
The authorities had taken some unprecedented measures in the run-up to Kashmir decision. They mobilized massive troops, enforced curfews, cut off communication lines, and arrested local leaders who are no less patriotic than Modi. Those are indicators of anything but peace in the Kashmir valley.
Bucking India’s feisty parliamentary debate sessions, Narendra Modi instead exploited his supermajority in the house to annul articles 370 and 35-A in the constitution, which afforded Kashmir independence over policy areas except for defense and foreign relations. His way of getting things done is sure to widen the gulf between the ruling party and the opposition and create greater cleavages among the Indian public in general.
The aftershocks of India’s Kashmir decision are likely to ripple through the regional politics for an indefinite period. Therefore, despite India’s intention otherwise, the United States cannot but stay aloof from the unfolding situations. But Modi’s India is more adamant and less compromising. It will continue to make decisions that may or may not please Washington. And that is the message Delhi wants to send to Washington.
Arafat Kabir is a graduate student of political science at the University of Utah. He writes about South Asian politics, defense, and business with a special focus on Bangladesh. He is a contributor to Forbes Asia. His articles have also published in media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Diplomat, and The National Interest. He can be reached on Twitter at @ArafatKabirUpol. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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