Narendra Modi became Prime Minister at a delicate and dangerous moment for India. The fragility was internal; the threat was external.
India was enmeshed in a triple trap: an economic crisis that had depleted jobs and diminished hope; a moral cul de sac created by rampant corruption; and a rising youth population that was staring at a bleak future. If, by some misfortune, we had elected a fractured government led by another weak Prime Minister, we would have witnessed a gathering chaos with unpredictable consequences. The first decisions taken by Narendra Modi have begun to heal the deep wounds inflicted upon the economy, and revived the aspiration index among the young.
The external threat had an epicentre, with a radius extending beyond the visible horizon. Terrorist units like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and broader militias like Taliban based in Pakistan and Afghanistan have long declared India to be a principal target. Narendra Modi's successful visit to the United States has created a landmark alliance that will directly confront this manic danger.
In a substantive declaration, Prime Minister Modi and President Barack Obama have agreed to "joint and concerted efforts" to dismantle safe havens for terror and criminal networks like Lashkar, Jaish e Muhammad, Al Qaeda, D Company [the name given to the mafia led by Dawood Ibrahim] and the Haqqani network, as well as the piquantly phrased "travellers of terrorism" [individuals or groups who volunteer for war under the flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to give the most prominent example].
This represents a major shift in America's policy. Where do these terrorists find sanctuary? On Pakistani soil, under a safety umbrella provided by Pak security forces. While Washington has long recognised each of these outfits as terrorist, it has always factored in Pakistan's concerns about the inclusion of India in this war zone. Pakistan treats its space, obviously, as sacrosanct, but also considers Afghanistan as its exclusive strategic region. India has been clear that there is sufficient evidence to prove that Pakistan is part of the problem, rather than part of a solution. It is becoming apparent that Narendra Modi has persuaded Obama to accept the Indian view. America and India can, after this declaration, be partners in pursuit of terrorist outfits based in Pakistan. The significance of this agreement can hardly be underestimated. Islamabad should be listening with care, and perhaps concern. Its long game of duplicity, by which it pretended to be an ally in the war against terrorists while encouraging them covertly, is no longer going to be treated as tenable.
In a substantive declaration, Prime Minister Modi and President Barack Obama have agreed to ‘joint and concerted efforts’ to dismantle safe havens for terror and criminal networks.
In fact, Pakistan has not made much effort to effectively disguise this duplicity. Note the comment of its High Commissioner in Delhi who, when asked about Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed, casually shrugged aside any suggestion that this might be a problem by saying that Saeed was a Pakistani citizen, and therefore had the right to wander around freely. Not quite, Mr High Commissioner. As an internationally identified terrorist, with a price on his head, he should be in custody and on serious trial. The current judicial proceedings against him are a fake pseudo-drama.
America has also signalled that India has a significant role to play in the Afghan region during the transition and after the withdrawal of America-led Nato forces. The mention of the Haqqani network, which is protected and sponsored by Islamabad and the Pak army, confirms this. The India-US strategic partnership has been taken to a new level with this visit. India is now set to become the 49th member of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group. The Prime Minister's National Security Adviser Ajit Doval stayed back in Washington after Modi's departure to place the building blocks on commitments like intelligence sharing and delineate the next steps in this expanding alliance.
While this was the core, India's relations with America are set to blossom in many directions. We will soon see world-class new cities emerge out of this bilateral harmony in Allahabad, Ajmer and Vishakhapatnam. American businessmen will be encouraged to revive India as an investment destination, particularly when tax laws are clarified, and red tape is sliced, as Modi has promised to do within the immediate legislative calendar. The two nations have also signed a Water and Sanitation Alliance for a project close to the Prime Minister's heart.
The optics, as is only to be expected, dominated media attention, particularly with high voltage events like the speech at Madison Square Garden and the walk with Obama at the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial. But leaders do not step out with any enthusiasm until minds meet. Modi and Obama had to first warm up a bilateral relationship that had gone cool and then find a way forward in a difficult international environment. They could have chosen the familiar option of fudge. They chose clarity.