US President Donald Trump dropped a bombshell on India during Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to the White House. As reported, Trump said that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir. Categorical denials have swiftly been issued by India’s ministry of external affairs, which has explicitly stated that no such request was made by Modi. New Delhi’s position, the ministry has clarified, remains what it was: that in accordance with the 1972 Simla Agreement and 1999 Lahore Declaration, all of India’s outstanding issues with Pakistan are to be resolved bilaterally. There is no scope for third-party mediation. In what seems like an attempt to contain the diplomatic damage done by Trump’s utterance, the US State Department has acknowledged India’s bilateral-talks-only stance, though it has added that the US “welcomes" the idea of the two countries “sitting down" for such talks.
Amateurish and off-hand Trump’s comments may have sounded, but it’s unclear if India can brush them off and carry on as if nothing is in the air that should concern us. It is well known that the Trump administration is trying to negotiate a military withdrawal from Afghanistan (one of his top campaign promises). In this, Washington sees Islamabad’s cooperation as crucial, given its assessment that Pakistan could get the Taliban to achieve a détente with the elected Afghan government and thus allow it to claim success in Kabul. The dependence equation being such, Pakistan could hardly be expected to drive a soft bargain.
India’s diplomacy would now need to ensure that Kashmir is kept strictly off the table in any potential deal between Islamabad and Washington over the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. As for engaging Pakistan, India insists that all cross-border terror must come to a halt before talks can be held to resolve differences between the two countries. The US would stand a far better chance of having its own regional interests met if it bears India’s position in mind.