A change of government may or may not signal a new beginning. The huge mandate for Narendra Modi, however, suggests that the people want it to be a really new dawn for politics and governance in India. Mr Modi’s very first step is both a personal triumph for him and a bold step towards living up to the mandate’s promise. By inviting heads of State from countries forming the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to his swearing-in as prime minister, Mr Modi has broken a brave new ground. The decision is remarkable on two major counts. It shows that Mr Modi wants to restore India’s neighbourhood to the focus of the country’s foreign policy. For any country, the image and the role it has in its backyard largely shape how the world views it. The invitation to the Saarc leaders to his swearing-in is thus more than a symbolic gesture. It is the first step towards meaningful engagement and confidence-building. Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, in particular, would know the importance of the message the invitation carries. The move is also significant in that it shows a desire on Mr Modi’s part to leave behind the baggage of the past and set an uncluttered new agenda. He has an added advantage in that he does not have to contend with the compulsions of an unwieldy coalition government in redrawing his neighbourhood policy.
However, continuity is as much a part of a country’s foreign policy as change. There are issues in India’s relations with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and even Nepal that were left unresolved by Manmohan Singh’s government. All this was not necessarily due to any lack of initiative on Mr Singh’s part. Mr Modi has to carry forward some of the tasks that the previous government left unfinished. On some issues in the bilateral ties with Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Nepal, bold new initiatives may be necessary. Also, Mr Modi’s invitation to the Saarc leaders should go some way in demolishing the myth about a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government pursuing a “hawkish” line in foreign policy, especially towards Pakistan and China. The record of the government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee should have been enough to destroy the myth. Ultimately, though, Mr Modi’s move to reach out to the Saarc leaders is not just about foreign policy; it is essentially about his approach to governance.