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Modi’s swearing-in diplomacy rolls

New Delhi, May 21: India today invited Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and leaders from six other neighbouring nations to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi in an unparalleled and symbolically loaded step dictated by the Prime Minister-designate.

Foreign secretary Sujatha Singh wrote to the heads of government and state of the seven nations that with India form the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), inviting them to the May 26 ceremony “on behalf of the Prime Minister-designate, Shri Narendra Modi”.

Some heads of state have confirmed participation. But the spotlight remains firmly trained on Sharif as India waited for a response from Pakistan on whether its Prime Minister could make the short but potentially dramatic trip from Islamabad to New Delhi on Monday.

If Sharif does attend —though a Pakistan diplomat hinted he may instead send brother Shahbaz, foreign policy adviser Sartaj Aziz or a senior minister — Modi’s move will draw parallels with the historic 1972 Richard Nixon-Deng Xiaoping handshake that ended a two-decade-long diplomatic Cold War between the US and China.

“We took the decision because we felt it would send the right signal towards our commitment to improving India’s relations with its neighbours,” BJP leader Nirmala Seetharaman said.

Even if Sharif cannot come, the new government would be signalling its wish to re-engage with the neighbour. Modi’s emphatic election victory arms him with the political capital that Manmohan Singh did not have while dealing with neighbours.

After his own election last year, Sharif’s administration had suggested that the Indian Prime Minister be invited to attend the ceremony, but Singh declined.

Sharif is known to have faced resistance from hardliners at home, notably within the armed forces, over his more dovish stance towards India.

Modi also faces similar jarring notes in India with Tamil Nadu politician Vaiko opposing Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit because of the Lankan Tamil issue. Some fringe groups associated with the Sangh parivar also make periodical noises against Pakistan.

Perhaps, keeping such hotheads in mind, a source familiar with the invitation process said: “Yeh hamare sanskar hain. Jitne bhi achhe rishte padosi ke saath na ho, ghar mein shaadi hai to padosi ko nimantrit karte hi hain. Modiji is sanskar se nikle hain (This is our culture. Even if relations with a neighbour are not good, the neighbour is always invited to a wedding in the house. Modi is a product of this culture).”

Diplomats from at least two European Union nations said their ambassadors, too, had been informally asked by the BJP if they would attend the inaugural ceremony slated for Monday evening. They had not received formal invitations till late in the evening.

Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa, outgoing Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay have confirmed that they will attend the swearing-in, a government official said. Maldives President Yameen Abdulla Gayoom is also expected to attend.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be travelling in Japan and is unlikely to be able to attend, although she will send a representative, a diplomat said. Nepal has not confirmed whether Prime Minister Sushil Koirala will attend.

“We have had informal consultations with several Saarc countries in this matter and we hope to have their responses in the next couple of days,” India’s foreign ministry spokesperson and joint secretary Syed Akbaruddin said. “This is for us a first of sorts.”

Cricket diplomacy has taken place more than once but never before has a Prime Minister-designate converted his swearing-in into a show of diplomatic strength.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had no foreign leaders at his multiple inaugurations — other than in 1947 when Lord Mountbatten was also sworn in as independent India’s first governor-general.

But few Indian Prime Ministers have come into office with the long diplomatic baggage that Modi carries.

Modi has had a rocky history with several key developed nations and their leaders in the wake of the Gujarat riots of 2002. Many of these nations have since reached out to Modi as he edged closer to India’s top executive post.

The presence of leaders from India’s neighbours at his inaugural ceremony will symbolise a ringing endorsement for Modi from the region that will bolster his geopolitical clout, diplomats said.

It’s a strategy embattled regimes — from Venezuela at Hugo Chavez’s funeral to Iran at Hassan Rohani’s inauguration as President last year — have previously used to shore up diplomatic credibility.

Leaders who do attend the ceremony will also witness Modi at his finest hour. “Imagine you’re the head of government of a neighbouring nation, there’s no moment you’ll see the domestic political strength of your counterpart clearer than at his swearing-in ceremony,” a former foreign secretary said. “It automatically raises their respect for Modi — before he’s held a single official dialogue with them.”

Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP and former junior foreign minister, while welcoming Modi’s “conciliatory and inclusive statements”, reminded Modi of his own words on Pakistan ties.

“If Nawaz Sharif does accept the invitation, let’s hope Narendra Modi will serve him chicken biryani!” Tharoor tweeted. On the campaign trail, Modi had accused the UPA government of serving chicken biryani to then Pakistan Premier Raja Pervez Ashraf who had made a private visit to India last year in the middle of a controversy over the beheading of an Indian soldier.


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