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Sharif gauges mood on Modi invite
- Decision put off by a day, Pakistan PM’s namesake in army holds the key

New Delhi, May 22: Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi’s invitation to neighbours has divided opinion in Pakistan that is still toiling over it and angered Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa who may skip the oath-taking ceremony.

But the decision to invite Saarc member nations (and Mauritius) to Modi’s swearing-in ceremony is being seen within officialdom as a deft diplomatic move.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was yet to respond to the invitation. The decision is likely to be taken tomorrow, although the Pakistan foreign office said this afternoon that the official response would be known “sometime” today.

Sources within Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) said that the Prime Minister wanted to normalise ties with India and promote commercial and business activities.

“He is keen to improve ties which is also the official policy of the party but he needs to take various aspects of the relations into consideration,” PTI quoted a PML-N leader as saying.

Officials in Delhi assess that Sharif’s decision will be influenced by the opinion of the other Shareef — General Raheel Shareef, chief of the Pakistan Army.

Even if Sharif cannot personally attend the ceremony, diplomats are trying to gauge the level of the representation from Pakistan.

In June last year, Sharif had invited Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to attend his inaugural. Singh was keen to go but voices from the Opposition and from within his own UPA barely six months after two Indian soldiers were mutilated and killed on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir restrained him.

Unlike the limitations of the UPA coalition, Modi does not have to depend heavily on his NDA partners. Even the Shiv Sena, that has the most strident anti-Pakistan voice in the NDA, has not yet officially reacted to the decision. But on Monday, its chief, Uddhav Thackeray had said the Modi government should adopt an aggressive tit-for-tat policy towards Pakistan.

“The invitation was received yesterday,” said Pakistani foreign office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam said in Islamabad today.

She said the decision whether the Prime Minister would attend or not would be taken some time today. “The normal practice is that the head of government can nominate any other person if he had other preoccupations,” she added.

However, PTI quoted Pakistan foreign ministry sources as saying in the evening that the decision was likely to be taken tomorrow.

The recent anti-Pakistan rhetoric by Modi irked many in Pakistan but Prime Minister Sharif sent a congratulatory message to the BJP leader and expressed best wishes to him over his party’s victory in the elections.

“We hope that when the new government takes over in India, the kind of atmosphere that prevailed during the election rallies will be left behind,” Aslam said, adding “We expect that when the new government takes over, it realises importance of having peace in the region.”

Sharif came to power promising to rebuild relations with India but he has been under pressure to toughen his stance from hardliners at home, particularly within the army.

Aslam said Pakistan saw this as a chance to improve relations. “We hope the dialogue process between India and Pakistan will resume,” she said. “It would be a meaningful dialogue, it would be constructive talks, and it would be dialogue with a view to resolving outstanding disputes between our two counties so that this region could have durable peace.”

She said Islamabad also hoped that the dialogue process between India and Pakistan would resume. India links resumption of the composite dialogue stalled since 2008 with bringing the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks to justice.

Pakistan had held an in-camera trial of the seven suspects of the Mumbai attacks, including the alleged mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, and indicted all of them five years ago.

Modi will be administered the oath of office by President Pranab Mukherjee on the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan at 6pm on May 26. The external affairs ministry, that has deputed a senior official to oversee protocol, has scheduled bilateral meetings between Modi and the visiting leaders on Tuesday. All the leaders are expected to fly out on Tuesday.

Saarc nations include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

Those who have confirmed attendance at the ceremony are: Maldives President Abdulla Yameen, Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, Bhutan Prime Minister Tobgay, Bangladesh Speaker Shirin Chaudhury and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Bangladesh Premier Hasina Wajed has spoken to Modi and told him that she would not be able to attend because she would be visiting Japan on a scheduled visit.

BJP leaders said that even if the party and Modi had talked tough on neighbours through the election campaign, the new regime would lay emphasis on governance and not confuse it with regional compulsions over foreign policy.