Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi has evoked surprise and approval on his invitation to heads of state and governments of member-countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to attend his swearing-in at Rashtrapati Bhawan on May 26.
It could hardly have been otherwise, considering that Modi is in his proverbial honeymoon period and his thumping majority has bowled many a critic over. With Congress looking increasingly vulnerable with little prospect of its revival, there is a growing inevitability about having to deal with a Modi-led government for long.
Pakistani leaders, who were mocking at Modi until the other day, are today singing a different tune, knowing that he is a shrewd strategist and there’s no match for him in the current opposition.
Modi’s willingness to engage Pakistan early in his tenure surprised many, given the hard line he adopted during his campaign. In September, Modi had lashed out at former PM Manmohan Singh for holding what he called a “biryani meeting” with Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif in New York, following the killing of Indian troops on the LoC. Modi demanded that Manmohan “call off this meeting”.
Modi’s surprise outreach through his invite to SAARC leaders was intended to allay regional fears that his rise to power would herald a new hawkishness in Indian foreign policy. The PM-elect had ruffled feathers in Bangladesh by his threats to expel migrants from the North-east. Likewise, Sri Lanka was concerned over the influence ethnic nationalists in Tamil Nadu might have over his foreign policy. Bangladesh will be represented at the ceremony by its parliament speaker.
Sharif’s reaction, however, was watched the most closely in New Delhi. Modi invited him to visit Pakistan and called for a resumption of early bilateral dialogue on all issues, including J&K. There have been doubts in India’s diplomatic establishment though of Sharif’s ability to deliver on his promise of peace in the face of resistance from the country’s military. Modi’s invitation also evoked a warm response with the Afghan, Maldivian and Sri Lankan presidents and the Bhutanese and Nepalese prime ministers confirming their participation.
Apart from SAARC leaders, Mauritius Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam will also attend the swearing-in, signalling a new attempt to forge closer links.
The US has welcomed Modi’s invite to SAARC leaders, realising that Modi’s diplomacy might well cold-shoulder the Americans in preference over Japan, China and neighbours, including SAARC members. All said and done, the Look East policy towards Japan would get a boost under Modi and economic ties with China would be rejuvenated.
Even nationally, a leader like J&K CM Omar Abdullah, who was highly critical of Modi before the elections, thought it expedient to welcome Modi’s SAARC initiative as an excellent move which Pakistan needs to applaud.
All in all, it’s a win-win situation for Modi. Had Sharif failed to show up, he would have been seen to be in the grip of the Pakistan Army. Now that he has confirmed that he’ll attending Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, the latter will be seen to have taken a step forward in refurbishing Indo-Pak relations. Modi would predictably pitch himself as a man of peace and use this honeymoon period to whitewash his reputation.
With Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa, Modi’s attempt would be to wean him away from Chinese and Pakistani influence and to get Jayalalithaa to forge working relations with the Sri Lankan government.
Nepal is another country where, China’s pro-active approach has caused the landlocked Himalayan state to drift away from India while continuing to pay lip service to closeness of ties with India. It would be no mean task for India to get Nepal into the Indian sphere of influence.
The author is a former journalist