The Telegraph
Saturday , May 17 , 2014
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Obama calls, visa ahead

New Delhi. May 16: The US today congratulated Narendra Modi for the BJP’s “historic” win in the Lok Sabha elections and welcomed him to the country, effectively overturning a nine-year visa ban on the Prime Minister-designate.

“We look forward to working with the new Indian government once formed to advance our partnership,” the White House said in a statement. President Obama tonight called and congratulated Modi. He also invited the BJP leader to visit Washington at a mutually agreeable time, adds PTI.

Heads of government or state are eligible for A1 diplomatic visas that grant the recipient immunity from any criminal prosecution, under US law. But not every eligible candidate for a visa is granted one, US state department officials in Washington and New Delhi have frequently pointed out in the past few months to argue that the country had not decided on whether to award Modi a visa if he became PM.

But privately, most American diplomats conceded they would have little option but to welcome any Indian PM, given their deep economic and strategic ties, especially as Washington tries to expand its footprint in the Asia Pacific region.

Earlier in the day, Modi received a series of congratulatory calls and letters from world leaders including British Prime Minister David Cameron, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Many of these leaders belong to nations that either boycotted Modi — like the UK — after the 2002 Gujarat riots he is accused by civil rights groups of overseeing as chief minister, or were targeted by Modi in his campaign.

But the clear verdict will allow the Modi-led government freedom from regional allies and greater flexibility in parliament than the outgoing government of Manmohan Singh — allowing India the opportunity of overcoming key diplomatic hurdles holding back ties with these nations.

“This is potentially very good news from a foreign policy perspective because it lifts all the unsaid and said shackles that have bound unstable governments for decades now,” a senior diplomat told The Telegraph. “Our neighbours and allies recognise that — which is why they want to jump into a relationship with the new government as soon as they can.”

In his campaigns in Bengal and Assam, Modi repeatedly targeted illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, cautioning them to leave by May 16, raising concerns among sections of Bangladesh’s diplomatic community.

But Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina today sent a letter to Modi through the country’s high commission here, saluting his leadership and inviting him to make her country his first official foreign destination.

“The decisive verdict given by the people of your great country is a strong testimony to your dynamic, inspiring and visionary leadership qualities and manifestation of the trust and confidence reposed in you by the people of the largest democracy in the world,” Hasina wrote.

“I most warmly invite you, Excellency, to visit Bangladesh at your earliest convenience and hope that you would find my country your second home and first destination for your offici al visit abroad.”

Dhaka, a senior Bangladesh diplomat said, is hoping that the decisive verdict will allow Modi to push through the Teesta river water sharing accord and a Land Boundary Agreement for swapping enclaves of land that belong to India and Bangladesh but are embedded in the other’s territory.

Both these agreements were finalised between the nations in September 2011 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka, but could not be implemented because of opposition from the Trinamul and other parties in parliament, which needs to approve the land swap pact.

“We see this as a great opportunity for India to fulfill its promises to a friend and ally, and for our two nations to build on the recent gains in our ties,” the diplomat said.

Bangladesh silently began diplomatic overtures to Modi last year itself, when it became evident that the BJP was likely to emerge a potential winner in these elections, and the country’s high commissioner Tariq Karim met Modi in Gandhinagar in July 2013.

Pakistan diplomats said that they respect Manmohan Singh’s refusal to give in to domestic politics and completely stop dialogue with Islamabad, but added that a stronger government in New Delhi could take more decisive steps to resolve long-standing disputes.

“It was during the Vajpayee government’s tenure that India-Pakistan ties really moved forward, and this government will be a lot more stable than even that of Vajpayee,” a Pakistan diplomat said.

India’s ties with Sri Lanka also stuttered over the past two years, with New Delhi twice voting against Colombo at the UN Human Rights Commission before abstaining this year.

Last November, Prime Minister Singh was pressured by his party into boycotting a key Commonwealth meet in Colombo against advice from the foreign ministry, after Tamil parties threatened a political backlash against the Congress. The PM did boycott the meet — though the Congress won no seat in Tamil Nadu.

“This government won’t depend on Tamil parties for serious support, so we expect ties with Sri Lanka to improve,” the Indian diplomat said. Rajapaksa, in his telephone call to Modi, invited him to visit Sri Lanka.

The UK — one of the first western countries to boycott Modi after the 2002 riots — has been warming up slowly to the BJP leader over the past two years. In 2012, British High Commissioner James Bevan visited Gandhinagar to meet Modi — ending a decade of acrimony.

“Congratulations @narendramodi on victory in India’s elections,” Cameron tweeted Friday. “Keen to work together to get the most from UK-India relationship.” Cameron then telephoned Modi in Gandhinagar.

Israel Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Australian PM Tony Abbott telephoned Modi in the evening to congratulate him.