A hyper-partisanship and hostility in Capitol Hill likely affecting US-India ties and posing a threat to decades of bipartisan goodwill that has been the fulcrum of bilateral relationship. Leading the hostility is the “progressive, liberal” section of the US Congress — a 535-strong inalienable part of the US government comprising House of Representatives and Senate with massive fiscal clout and diplomatic sway — that until recently was a strong bipartisan backer of India.
The Congressional Democrats have been sharply critical of India, taking umbrage at Narendra Modi government’s recent steps over revocation of Article 370 and enactment of Citizenship Amendment Act. While some have brought House Resolutions on India’s handling of Kashmir, some lawmakers running for Presidency have openly wondered whether India is turning into an ‘illiberal democracy’ under a ‘Hindu majoritarian’, ‘Islamophobic’ government where Muslims are relegated as ‘second class citizens’.
Consequently, this “progressive wing” is pressurising the US Congress and the Donald Trump administration to impose greater costs on India, rethink the strategic partnership and doing away with ‘strategic altruism’. Opinion is divided over whether this sermonising by the ultra-Left in the US will have any visible impact to bilateral ties but there’s no question that the US Congress, which tends to take an independent view on international relations, may become more and more critical of India.
On the face of it, this posturing by Congressional Democrats is motivated by a moral impulse. But scratch the surface and a disturbing cocktail of reasons emerge behind the façade that includes frustration with Trump and the trajectory of his campaign despite the desperate bid to impeach him, annoyance with Modi-Trump bromance, hatred towards India’s prime minister and a fundamental, ideological distrust of the BJP-led NDA government fed by an equally partisan and bigoted ‘liberal’ US media.
This moral posturing by the ultra-Left in the US in response to India’s policies and decisions as a sovereign state has also fed into domestic politics. Congress, for instance, has applauded US lawmakers for taking potshots at India – not a smart move given India’s colonial past but this, or media commentary that blames the “new negative dynamic in Washington” on Modi government’s “egregious policies” is guilty of overlooking the impulses that are motivating the “progressive Democrats”.
For one, this section of the US Congress suffers from a condition that noted French philosopher and author Pascal Bruckner has called ‘political culture of western guilt’ in his book The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism. Bruckner argues that the western burden of guilt over racism and slavery is so severe that it is now terrified of offending minority interests and has ended up becoming enablers and collaborators of Islamic fundamentalists. Bruckner, a Frenchman, writes in French context but his views are echoed by British Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz who detects an inability of the Left in understanding that challenging Islamist extremism does not mean aiding far-right… “the alternative to this fear must not be to instead empower theocratic fascism”.
This context is important to understand why the “progressive, liberal” US lawmakers see nothing wrong in Pakistan’s policy of using terrorism as a legitimate foreign policy tool to achieve political ends in Kashmir, and perceive India’s policy of abrogating Article 370 and reading down Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in isolation. Ignoring Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism, the history of Kashmir and the geopolitical necessities behind India’s move to read down a temporary Constitutional position makes for a skewed debate but that’s exactly what US Congressional Democrats did in 22 October during the Congressional hearing on “Human Rights in South Asia” that provided the Democrats with a chance to target Modi government and question India’s democratic credentials.
As this Washington DC-based Indian commentator notes, “Democrats who are not members of the Asia subcommittee or even the larger House Foreign Affairs Committee were invited to attend. They asked tough questions and left. It was clear that some were marking presence with little or no feel for the subject.”
If this gives us a hint that Congressional Democrats were more interested in playing to the gallery or propagating Islamo-fascist agendas, as Somalian-origin US lawmaker from Minnesota Ilhan Omar was doing, it became clearer recently that “progressive liberals” among US Congress are driven more by domestic political considerations in treating India as a punching bag.
It all started when India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar canceled a meeting with US Congressional leaders over a meeting on Kashmir. Jaishankar’s decision earned him disrepute in US media and a string of criticisms by US lawmakers (all Democrats, some of whom are running for Presidency). Jaishankar’s disagreement stemmed from the last-minute inclusion of Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat of Indian descent who represents Washington’s 7th Congressional District in the House of Representatives, into the panel before whom the Indian foreign minister was to appear.
Jaishankar’s stated schedule was to meet members and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) on the sidelines of the India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue but in apparent contravention of House rules, the HFAC included co-sponsors of two bills on Kashmir – Jayapal and Palestinian-American lawmaker Rashida Tlaib.
This was promptly played by Jayapal – a vocal critic of Modi government who has made ‘human rights issues’ her calling card in politics – as suppression of dissenting voices by India. She received ample support from Congressional colleagues, Democrat presidential candidates and Washington Post that was the immediate beneficiary of this “leaked” story.
The cancellation of this meeting was deeply disturbing.
It only furthers the idea that the Indian government isn’t willing to listen to any dissent at all. https://t.co/EMeqIr05VJ
— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@RepJayapal) December 19, 2019
Efforts to silence @PramilaJayapal are deeply troubling. The U.S. and India have an important partnership-but our partnership can only succeed if it is rooted in honest dialogue and shared respect for religious pluralism, democracy, and human rights. https://t.co/hx5H5Rpxqg
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) December 20, 2019
India is an important friend and partner of the United States, which is why I’m concerned about the ongoing political detentions, communications blackouts, and other steps being taken by the government that could threaten its longstanding democratic traditions.
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) December 23, 2019
The entire episode was presented as an “illiberal Indian government” crushing dissent at home and refusing to even engage with critics abroad. This line, however, comes under question when we look at the chronology of events. The first thing to note is that it was Jaishankar who sought a meeting with SFRC and HFAC. He did not seek a meeting with either Jayapal — who has brought a House resolution on Kashmir urging the Indian government to “lift communication blackout” and stop “surge in attacks against religious minorities throughout India” or Tlaib, who has also moved resolution seeking, among other things, “Kashmiri self-determination.”
Since it is inconceivable that India would have willingly sought meeting with two trenchant critics, their inclusion at the last minute in the committee raises a few questions. Why were they added, and was it a contravention of House rules?
It is evident that Jayapal, who is not a member of HFAC leave alone being part of the top leadership, “suddenly appeared on the list of attendees” apparently because the request “was initiated by her office two days before and accepted by HFAC chairman Eliot Engel….” As this piece in Economic Times tells us. This was objected to by the Indian side who suspected that Jayapal (or Tlaib’s) inclusions are essentially PR stunts. As Sirohi writes, “the story was promptly leaked to The Washington Post, a fact that reinforced the feeling on the Indian side that Jayapal’s idea was to embarrass the minister, not to conduct a dialogue… Even if the meeting were held with Jayapal attending, there was no guarantee she would have kept the discussions private and not taken to Twitter to pronounce judgment. It was a PR problem either way.”
Jayapal’s partisan behavior was evident on 22 October during the Congressional hearing when she appeared before the panel and blasted India for “human rights abuse”. As a report in Economic Times points out, following the hearing, Jayapal “was requested by US-based Indian officials to provide specific names of individuals based in the US who could not establish contacts with their relatives in J&K after August 5 so that the government could facilitate contact. Eventually, when names were not provided, her attention was drawn to the fact by the officials that her constituents were actually from Pakistan, masquerading as Kashmiris.”
Jaishankar has seen Washington enough to understand these games. He was quite explicit about his reasons in not meeting those who have “already made up their minds” instead of being “objective, and open to discussion”. He also dismissed notions that US Congress as a whole suffers from an ideological dissonance against India.
Be that as it may, it is increasingly clear that India under Modi and Jaishankar is unwilling to give in to external pressure tactics and propagandist behavior over sovereign decisions. Whether India possesses enough clout to impose costs on nations that seek to politicise India’s sovereign decisions for domestic politics is debatable. India may not be as powerful as China, but is now a bigger Asian power and poised to leap ahead in global commons.
Washington must understand that India will be guided by its own considerations in taking these sovereign decisions, such as legislations duly passed by its Parliament or revoking of Constitutional positions. It shall not be deterred by pressure tactics, and the onus is on the sections to US Congress who remain inimical ideologically to India’s ruling dispensation to get their collective heads around this reality and not let hyper-partisanship ruin bilateral ties. Fortunately, the Trump administration has shown itself to be more pragmatic than Democrat hotheads. India is at conversation with itself, asking questions of its past that it should have long ago. The US must respect the playing out of democracy.
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