Most of the major candidates for Democratic nomination to the post of the president of the United States have issued statements in the past week about Indian foreign policy. The immediate provocation for these actions is the decision by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar
to cancel a meeting with members of the United States Congress when the leader of the committee in question refused to exclude Washington representative Pramila Jayapal from the meeting. Ms Jayapal, who is a leader of the progressive caucus in the House and is a prominent Indian American, has provoked ire in the Indian government because she had asked questions recently about India’s Kashmir policy. Several of the Democrats have said that no government should be able to pick and choose who is in a US Congressional delegation; Pete Buttigieg has pointed out that India and the US have a relationship based on shared values and that India should live up to these values.
Some of this will obviously be posturing for a domestic audience in the United States. But it also suggests that India’s recent high-stakes attempt to push back against criticism of its domestic policy in Kashmir and Assam in particular is not meeting with the expected levels of success. It is far from clear what the foreign ministry was thinking. Surely, the external affairs minister is more than capable of holding his own in defending a policy— the reading down of Article 370
— that has been agreed upon by the Indian Parliament. Indeed, that is the job not just of the minister but of every Indian diplomat. Instead, however, a touch of overconfidence seems to have seeped into how the Indian government regards its status in Washington DC. The years of a strong relationship with India being a bipartisan consensus in the American capital no doubt have something to do with this sense of complacency. But recent actions by the Indian government have clearly led to a situation where this bipartisan consensus is in danger. For example, India’s ambassador to the US, Harsh Shringla, caused much consternation in the US capital when he met and praised the right-wing ideologue Steve Bannon. Mr Shringla, far from suffering for this misjudgment, has just been appointed the next foreign secretary. Then there was the prime minister’s ill-judged appearance with President Donald Trump at a political rally in Houston, in the course of which he repeated a political slogan that was widely viewed as an endorsement of Mr Trump, although officials subsequently walked back that interpretation. Fitting into this attempt to woo the global right wing is the decision to welcome a group of lawmakers from the European Parliament, many of whom were associated with the anti-Muslim hard right in that continent.
India has benefited greatly from the bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill that a closer relationship between the US and India is in both countries’ interests. By and large, this consensus has survived lobbying attempts by US domestic industry. But cosying up to Mr Trump is not a well-thought-through idea — already it has been reported that his primary trade advisor has his sights on Indian trade policy. India is in any case isolated in multiple multilateral forums, and US backing will continue to be important. In this atmosphere, alienating members of the US Congress and the potential next president, if a Democrat, is dangerously short-sighted. There was no reason to run down carefully built-up political capital in this manner. The government had better make amends for its myopic behaviour in short order.