That Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the United States was distinctly successful is without doubt. He was, according to commentators, the second most googled — after President Barack Obama — person within the United States during the period of his stay. Clearly hypnotised by the near-hysteric response of 20,000 Indian-Americans at Madison Square Garden, an American Congressman compared him to the likes of Ronald Reagan — the movie star turned President. With almost four minutes dedicated to Mr Modi on The Daily Show, anchored by the caustic but hilarious political satirist Jon Stewart, there is little doubt that the Prime Minister reached parts of America far away from the speed of New York and Washington.
This visit was a lot more than a publicity stunt. Meetings and luncheons with America’s wealthy and powerful, Congressional elites, the Clintons, and, of course, the all-important sessions with President Obama have done well to draw attention to India. The “India story”, as the Prime Minister’s party spokespersons like to call it, got a clear and timely hearing. India found a place, even if temporarily, in the political and financial vocabulary of America’s leadership. In a sense, and broadly, this appears to have been the primary aim of this visit: to dazzle corporate and political America. To get them thinking seriously about India, and to remind President Obama — whose own enthusiasm for South Asia is closer to that shared by Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, which is to say, it is limited — that India matters. Authoring a joint opinion piece in the Washington Post — that covered everything from battling tuberculosis to improving food security in Afghanistan — was a welcome initiative to popularise the potential inherent in this all-important relationship to a global audience. In short, the fundamental objective of the “Modi in America” campaign has been realised.
Yet, and these achievements aside, the Prime Minister was less clear when it came to crucial matters of security. References to terrorism and the critical issue of Afghanistan needed enunciation. This is not to say that these were abiding matters of discussion or that the Prime Minister set out on his flight to America to offer precision on issues less connected with infrastructural growth, patents and foreign direct investment. But two points bear mention.
First, in a statement, both leaders “stressed the need for joint and concerted efforts” to deal with terrorism. This included “the dismantling of state havens for terrorists and criminal networks”. Specifically, disrupting all “financial and tactical support” to groups like the Haqqani’s that command authority in large parts of eastern Afghanistan. Such cooperation is welcome. However, how will it take place? The joint statement makes it seem as though India and the US are on the same page. They are not. The United States has spent the last three years trying to negotiate an agreement with various Taliban factions, including with the Haqqani’s. According to insiders, senior American military officials reached-out to the group’s leader — Jalaluddin Haqqani — in 2009, at the same time as the newly elected Obama administration did its utmost — much like the Bush administration before — to keep India at bay when it came to the war in Afghanistan.
Further, the spirit for cooperation may tempt the Prime Minister to join the United States to take the war to groups such as this, which are also demonstratively anti-Indian. Nonetheless, the consequences of such action are far costlier for India — a hop, skip and jump away for jihadis totting Kalashnikovs with potentially well-established relations with Pakistan’s security tsars. America can fight its war against the Haqqani’s via computer consoles, running drones from Tampa and Virginia. India cannot. Indeed, Indian cooperation would suit American interests at a time when the fight — as far as the Obama administration is concerned — has moved to West Asia. It may well be the case that the government is willing to exercise its prerogative and re-design a counter-terrorism advance away from what many considered to be the “softer” approach of the Congress-led coalition. But is this what Prime Minister Modi had in mind when he lent words to a joint opinion piece? These are matters that require explanation, perhaps in Parliament.
Second, at the United Nations, Mr Modi argued for the establishment of a “Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism”. In principle, this is an opportunity to take a lead. There are a few countries across the world that can fully appreciate what the threat and reality of terrorism can do to a nation. In Washington, both leaders agreed to continue “comprehensive global efforts to combat and defeat terrorism”. This led many to speculate whether the Prime Minister had in fact agreed to join the United States in its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The external affairs ministry was quick to dismiss such claims. Yet, a more important question remains: What will the “Convention” proposed by the Prime Minister look like? How will it be different to the UN-led Counter Terrorism Committee, established by Resolutions 1373 and 1624, or the 18 Universal Instruments adopted by the UN to deal with terrorism, including a dedicated Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force created in 2005?
These questions may be of little concern at a time when the Prime Minister has done more than many of his predecessors — including Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee — to excite America. To be sure, this visit will be remembered more for setting the scene for future cooperation. It will be judged for what it produces, but this will only be possible many months down the line. For now, and without taking away from the importance of adding zest to a relationship marred by controversy in the recent past, this visit also ought to invite pause. After all, headline-grabbing statements do well for brand development. But rhetoric and powerful oratory can often lead to paths that are less inviting or anticipated. Words require measure, especially when dealing with matters of war and peace.
The writer is the author of Forged in Crisis: India and the United States since 1947