NEW DELHIi: For the first time, the swearing-in ceremony of the prime minister was not just an Indian event, but an unprecedented South Asian phenomenon.
While regional leaders witnessed it in person at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, citizens across the subcontinent tuned in to the live broadcast shown across state and private television channels.
Sitting in the front row were eight leaders, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Bhutan PM Tshering Tobgay, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, Nepal PM Sushil Koirala, Bangladesh Speaker Shirin Chaudhury and Mauritius PM Navin Ramgoolam.
At the end of the 90-minute ceremony, all the leaders were taken to the dais to shake hands with the new Indian leader. Noticeably, Modi shared the longest and warmest handshake with Sharif. This was their first face-to-face interaction.
Perhaps, out of all the foreign VVIPs, the presence of the Pakistan PM was the most unprecedented. His acceptance of the invitation came on Saturday morning, after he overcame formidable domestic opposition.
The five-star hotel where Sharif and his entourage were staying was abuzz with activity. After reaching at 11 am, he was immediately ensconced in his hotel suite, with sources indicating that he was meeting some senior editors and businessmen.
It is believed that Sharif was keen to meet former PM AB Vajpayee, who had visited Lahore on the historic bus trip. But the meeting was ruled out due to Vajpayee’s poor health.
“We have very high expectations from the Modi administration,” said Sharif’s son, Hussain Nawaz Sharif, after he was mobbed by the Indian media. He left the hotel at about 5 pm — an hour before the ceremony was to start. As he left, Sharif told the media that he bore “the message of good will and good wishes from Pakistan.” When he reached Rashtrapati Bhavan, his proud daughter Maryam, watching from Pakistan, said, “I selected his ties.”
He was seated right next to former PM Manmohan Singh, both of whom were seen having a long conversation before the start of the ceremony. Interestingly, Afghan President Hamid Karzai sat on Singh’s left.
At the end, all the leaders from South Asia and Mauritius stood in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan for a photo-op. At a ceremony to celebrate Indian democracy, it was fitting, as well as remarkable, that all of them were democratically-elected leaders.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first day in office will see him having bilateral meetings with eight foreign leaders.
Interestingly, while the official schedule mentions that the meetings with seven leaders will have a duration of 20 minutes, there is an extra 10 minutes for Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif.