Diplomatic Faux Pas?

Was it a momentary lapse or does it signal a significant shift in India’s policy posture towards President Donald Trump of the United States? The other day External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made two unusually sharp remarks directly critical of the US President. One, about climate change. And two, about the H-1B visa.

Regarding Trump’s reference to India having signed the historic Paris Climate Change agreement in December 2015 on the condition that billions of dollars of compensation would be paid, Sushma Swaraj used harsh language: “India did not sign the Paris climate deal because of greed for money. If someone says we signed it for money or under pressure, I’ll totally reject it. What Trump said is not the reality. It is wrong. We signed it because of our belief — a 5,000-year-old love for the environment”.

Regarding the H-1B visa row, Swaraj said: “Yes, we are concerned, although no changes have been made in the visa policy as of now. But we know the US President cannot make amendments on his own through Executive Orders. It has to be passed by the US Congress. We are in talks with members of the US Congress and officials of the Trump administration”.

Clearly the external affairs minister seemed to be indicating that India’s strategy was to ignore and bypass President Trump and take up the H-1B visa issue by lobbying directly with the US House of Congress.

It is rare for any Indian foreign minister to make such remarks about an American President, particularly in the present environment in which India’s relations with Washington have been growing closer in recent decades, and particularly under the Modi dispensation.

Indeed, Swaraj did also make the right diplomatic noises while speaking about Indo-US friendship: “The relationship between India and US is progressing under Trump as it did during Obama’s presidency. Modi has spoken to Trump on three occasions. There have also been talks between the National Security Advisors of both countries. I want to say that we are looking at it as relationship of mutual benefit.”

Observers have been left scratching their heads particularly about her pungent comments regarding the Paris agreement. The question being asked in diplomatic circles is whether it reflects the thinking of the Prime Minister himself or was just a slip on the part of the external affairs minister during an hour-long press conference on her ministry’s performance and perhaps some irritation over being asked about Trump’s remarks.

The context is that last week in Washington the US President had made a major policy speech in which he announced that America would be pulling out the Paris deal which had been signed by as many 195 nations of the world.

During his speech, Trump said: “Not only does this Paris deal subject our citizens to harsh economic restrictions, it fails to live up to our environmental ideals. As someone who cares deeply about the environment, which I do, I cannot in good conscience support a deal that punishes the United States, which is what it does. It punishes America, the world’s leader in environmental protection, while imposing no meaningful obligations on the world’s leading polluters.

He continued: “For example, under the agreement, China will be able to increase the emissions by a staggering number of years - 13. They can do whatever they want for 13 years. But we can’t.

“Also, India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries. There are many other examples but the bottom line is that the Paris Accord is very unfair at the highest level to the United States”.

It is this reference to India “making its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid” that seems to have a raw nerve - promoting a piqued Swaraj to reject the insinuation that India signed because of greed for money.


Vol. 49, No.50, Jun 18 - 24, 2017