By Balbir Punj
Securing the release of the Catholic priest, Father Alexis Prem Kumar, from his Afghan Taliban captors should be viewed in different ways. The Jesuit priest himself said on arrival at the Delhi airport from Kabul: “It is because of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi [that] I am here. He saved me.” What Father Alexis said was an understatement. He alone, having faced possible execution, knows the wave of hope and trough of dejection as the prime minister took personal charge of the negotiations to secure his release. The priest was abducted on June 4, 2014 from Sohadat village, 25 km from the provincial capital of Herat. At the time, he was in a school, overseeing Jesuit aid and rehabilitation work among Afghan refugees. The news of his release was first broken to his anxious family, with whom the PM spoke, as well as to the public through Modi’s tweet. The PM not only spoke to the priest at Kabul airport but also ensured that the father and brother of the victim could come to New Delhi to receive him. The PM also enabled the family members to stay on in Delhi overnight. Father Alexis’s safe return home is an important development when other Islamist militant forces like the Isis almost daily threaten global powers like America, France, Japan, and even neighbouring Jordan, with displays of brutal killings of their captives from those countries. Against this backdrop, for the Indian government to have kept the backchannel negotiations under wraps for as long as nine months is a tribute to the efficiency that has been injected into the administration. The Congress-led Kerala government had publicly acknowledged the efficiency of the external affairs ministry’s backchannel diplomacy when the Kerala nurses captured by the Isis in Iraq (most of them Christians) were released. After Father Alexis’s return from captivity, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, which was just the other day expressing its apprehensions about the safety of minorities under the Modi regime, issued a statement appreciating the PM’s personal efforts towards getting the priest released. Despite the hullabaloo over “minorities in danger”, the hallelujahs from the bishops’ body, including its reference to “sustained negotiations” by the PM, reveals that the truth about this regime has finally begun to prevail against the motivated propaganda. “A diplomatic coup”, is how the spokesman of the bishops’ body, Father Joseph Chinnayyan, described the event. Obviously, the Islamists have developed some respect for India after the new government here has proven that it means business and is prepared to walk its talk. India today has both the political will and the naval and air strength and commandos to execute what it says. In both cases, of securing the release of the Kerala nurses and that of the Jesuit priest, the PM ignored his critics who charged him with a bias against minorities and went ahead to secure his goal quietly and efficiently. Only last month, Modi had spoken at a Christian meet to an audience of high-level religious and lay Christians at Vigyan Bhavan, clarifying his government’s view that India was for people of all religions, equal and free. In some way, the release of the Jesuit priest coming so soon, revealing months of patient negotiations overseen by Modi personally, and without a word leaking out despite a media hungryfor such tips, might well be seen as proof of the pudding that he laid out. Thereby, this PM is demonstrating that for his government, the proof of decisive governance is in walking the talk. The success of the diplomacy he is conducting since last May through his many foreign tours and invitations to the leaders of foreign powers to come to Delhi, which culminated in the US president’s second visit to India last January and his presence at the Republic Day parade, is apparent. Viewed in the context of some parts of our neighbourhood being aflame with anti-India forces, such successes have international ramifications. The remarkable change in Sri Lanka, where a government voted out by that country’s people was seeking to play China’s aggressive expansionism into the Indian Ocean against India, to stymie or hinder Delhi in the real problems it was facing in the Indian Ocean island countries, has already calmed the anxieties of people on both sides of the Gulf of Mannar. Whether in delicate negotiations with unpredictable religious militants in Syria and Afghanistan or with self-conscious neighbours, success is also dependent on what respect you command as a nation with a determined government in charge. For Modi, his success so far could arise from the vision and projection of his ways of governance that global powers as well as India’s neighbours are watching intently, with high-level visits to Delhi thrown in every now and then. The neighbourhood presents many more challenges as anti-India forces are hammering at neighbouring governments. The internal revolt in Bangladesh that Sheikh Hasina has so far withstood is partly aimed at the return of an anti-India government in Dhaka. The rapid escalation of events in the Maldives, threatening the replacement of the current regime by its own head with a pro-Islamist one, is another challenge India faces right now. The PM is displaying considerable diplomatic skills in dealing with an aggressive China that is not taking kindly to his moves to counter Beijing’s Indian Ocean thrust. The recent visit of his colleague and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Beijing, in the wake of his remarkable success with the US president, underlines the wisdom of Modi’s initiatives. Getting the ultra-tough Afghan Taliban and the brutal Isis to release their Indian victims should ensure that both India’s neighbours and global powers perceive the government in Delhi as an entity that creates equal “awe and wows”.