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Multiple signals plus poke in eye
Bid to build bridges near home; jab at West in Saarc invites

Fireworks light up the sky in New Delhi’s Chandni Chowk to celebrate Modi’s swearing-in. Picture by Yasir Iqbal

New Delhi, May 26: India’s first choreographed coronation of a Prime Minister graced by the heads of several neighbouring nations has stirred both concerns and expectations among sections of political scientists with some calling it a good start, but others viewing it as largely symbolic.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and leaders from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, Mauritius and Sri Lanka attended the ceremony.

BJP supporters in Varanasi paint a lotus to celebrate the swearing-in. The party turned the oath-taking ceremony into a grand affair by decorating markets, distributing sweets and installing LCD screens to telecast the event. Supporters also formed human chains and sang Vande Mataram. (PTI)

“We’ll need to wait and watch to find out whether this was symbolic or the new government will follow this up with substantial moves to improve relations with neighbours,” said Aruna Pendse, an associate professor of political science at the University of Mumbai.

Senior specialists in international affairs view the invitation to the leaders of other countries as a signal from Modi to the nation, to India’s neighbours and to the rest of the world.

“It may be an attempt to build bridges with leaders in the neighbourhood and to convey to people in neighbouring nations and to the West that he’s reaching out to all in the region, despite the perceptions about him,” said Kanti Prasad Bajpai, professor of international politics at the National University of Singapore.

“But it may also be a symbolic poke in the eye to western countries that had shunned Modi in the past because of the 2002 riots in Gujarat,” Bajpai said. The ceremony, he said, may also be viewed as an attempt by Modi to establish his legitimacy as the leader of the world’s largest democracy — earned through both the process of getting votes and the presence of foreign leaders.

BJP leader Arun Jaitley, among the 45 ministers who took the oath, had on Saturday described the invitation to leaders of the South Asian nations as an attempt “to showcase Indian democracy and its strength to the world at large”.

“While celebrating the success of India’s democracy, the fact that our neighbours through (their) leaders will be represented reaffirms India’s faith in both democracy and greater integration of the region,” Jaitley had written in a message on his website.

But a senior political scientist said that while any new government was entitled to invite whoever it wanted to, today’s oath-taking ceremony was just one in a series that India has had over the past six decades.

“There is nothing special about today — and certainly nothing makes this outcome more democratic than previous ones as incumbent governments have been voted out in India at least five times in the past, even in 1977 (after the Emergency)," said Suhas Palshikar, professor of politics at the University of Pune.

“This is a moment of triumph for the BJP and they are entitled to a certain amount of exaggeration but, in the years to come, no one will remember the grand scale of the ceremony that happened today," Palshikar said.

However, the ceremony has raised expectations among some who are calling it a good first step, while cautioning that given the complexities of India's relations with its neighbours, follow-up action may not be an easy walk for Modi.

“The test of the new regime in engaging India’s neighbours will lie in how effectively it can address pressures from local political groups within India, whether the Shiv Sena or the AIDMK,” said Mona Mehta, assistant professor of political science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.

Pakistan's military, Mehta said, is likely to find India’s new leadership conducive to whipping up passions against peace initiatives with India. “Such realities could make breakthroughs on peace and trade with Pakistan difficult to achieve.”

Pendse at the University of Mumbai said if the invitations to neighbouring leaders was a show of intent to improve relations, it would be a positive sign. “But the government needs to follow-up with action to bring new life into Saarc, which has largely remained dormant for years,” Pendse said.