US President Trump remarks on Kashmir kick up a storm in India

Pakistani newspapers showing front-page coverage of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan meeting US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House on July 23, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - US President Donald Trump's offer to help resolve the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan has touched a raw nerve in India and added to uncertainty about his policy towards South Asia, said foreign policy analysts.

Mr Trump set off a diplomatic and political storm by claiming that Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a meeting in Japan last month had asked for his help in mediating the Kashmir issue, which is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan.

The US President was speaking to reporters ahead of a meeting with visiting Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.

India disputed the claim with Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar on Tuesday reiterating in Parliament that "no such request has been made by the Prime Minister to the US President".

India and Pakistan have gone to war thrice over Kashmir and India's longstanding position has been that the dispute over the territory, which is controlled in parts by the two countries, had to be resolved bilaterally between them. Pakistan, on the other hand, has always sought mediation, including with the involvement of the United Nations and the US. Past US administrations accepted India's position and the State Department tweeted that Kashmir was a matter for the two countries after Mr Trump spoke

Analysts said President Trump's comments would likely increase uncertainty within the Indian leadership on how to engage with the US leader.

"It will have a short-term impact and that feeling will get deeper that it is difficult to deal with Trump and the unpredictability of foreign policy under his administration," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.

"The Indian government will have to carefully decide how much they should engage Trump directly and the degree of the openness with him. A lot more effort will have to be made to brief Trump... through White House officials who are close to him and his inner circle plus generating pressure on him through the Congress where we have bipartisan support," added Mr Sibal.

Ties between India and the US have grown stronger amid mutual concerns about the rise of China. Cooperation has taken off particularly in the security arena after the US in 2016 designated India as a major defence partner.

But irritants have crept into the economic relationship under the Trump presidency and with India's ties with Iran and Russia.

Mr Trump, while pushing for greater access for American firms, removed India from a list of beneficiary developing nation under the GPS trade programme, on June 5.

In response, New Delhi last week announced retaliatory tariffs on 28 US imports, including apples and almonds. Mr Trump, in a series of tweets, however, continued to warn India over the trade imbalance.

The US leader's reference to mediation on Kashmir triggered a political storm in India with opposition politicians, in spite of the government's clarification, continuing to hound Mr Modi for a response.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury asked whether "our Twitter-friendly PM would rebut the US President".

Mr Rahul Gandhi, who has resigned as Congress president, tweeted that Mr Modi "must tell the nation what transpired" in the meeting in Japan.

Many analysts, however, believe that Mr Modi will ride out the controversy surrounding Mr Trump's remarks.

"I don't think it will have long-term impact (on ties). There will be lot of noise around this issue but it will die down," said Dr Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think-tank based in new Delhi.

"It (Mr Trump's remark) has created nuisance value for Modi (on the domestic front) on on top of other (domestic) issues."

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