The reported detention of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar could offer Prime Minister Narendra Modi political cover, at least in the immediate context, against criticism that his Lahore diplomacy was a miscalculation and repudiated his strong stance against terrorism during the 2014 campaign.
The Pathankot attack soon after the Lahore meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seemed to prove all the risks of such a decision going wrong, exposing Modi to the charge that he over-estimated the utility of personalized diplomacy cutting through official positions.
The deliverables that the Indian side had considered for the foreign secretary meeting to happen had included visible action against Jaish leaders, camps and offices. Azhar’s detention seems to have exceeded these expectations.
The raids and detentions follow a visible show of unity between Sharif and the Pakistan army and ISI chiefs, and this is a clear gain for Modi’s diplomacy and useful armour against political opponents like Congress which asked if he would persuade his “friend” Sharif to act on evidence against Pakistan-based groups.
The statement issued by Sharif’s office after his meeting with Pakistani military brass said, “In line with Pakistan’s commitment to effectively counter and eradicate terrorism, the meeting reviewed the progress made on the information provided by the government of India.” This was a first in committing the army and ISI to acting against a terror attack on India and the action on the ground provides a buffer for Modi.
The opposition’s jibes apart, the Pathankot incident posed a challenge to Modi’s line that terror and talks could not go hand in hand. But the detention of Jaish leaders has changed that. BJP and the government can cautiously argue that Modi’s insistence on decisive action has been met.
Investing political capital in relations with Sharif and raising the leader’s stake in the peace process seem to have worked as the Pakistani PM seems to have been stung by the violent rebuff to his decision to host Modi.
Action against Azhar may yet get bogged down in legalities and claims of insufficient evidence. But this is the same man India had to release in a terrorist-for-hostage swap and who has repeatedly called for violence against India.
Unlike in the case of 26/11, there has been no official attempt to deny the links to Pakistan. In 2008, it was the Pakistani media which established Ajmal Kasab’s identity, forcing the government to accept that the captured Lashkar gunman was a Pakistani national.
The terrorist strike on the Indian airbase close to the border with Pakistan reflected the rage of jihadi terrorists over Modi’s visit to Lahore and the warm welcome he was accorded by Sharif at his family home at Raiwind.
The attack, Pakistani identities of the terrorists and their links with Jaish – a longtime client of Pakistan’s ISI – strongly raised the possibility of Modi’s innovative diplomacy being swept away by the hardline military-jihadi complex.
Even though its planning may predate the Lahore meeting, the terrorist strike was almost certainly intended as a fierce response to the Indian PM being feted during his visit that took jihadi outfits by surprise.
Even if scepticism over how far the detention of Azhar will go remains thick, it allows Modi to keep open the window of political engagement with Pakistan created by his bold decision to go to Lahore.
.. As Published in TOI