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Modi averts invite mess

New Delhi, May 24: The new government’s first foreign policy initiative in inviting South Asian heads of state and government to New Delhi nearly became a monumental disaster till Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi took it into his own hands and salvaged it with the benefit of his vast experience as a hands-on chief minister.

Before leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) and Mauritius received invitations to Modi’s swearing-in and accepted them, aspirants jockeying for the national security adviser’s job in the new government had freelanced on the initiative in order to prove their credentials and almost got egg on the incoming Prime Minister’s face.

Fortunately, Modi realised in the nick of time the need to take matters into his own hands and also to seek advice from President Pranab Mukherjee with his reservoir of resources on diplomacy.

The comedy of errors in the manner of inviting leaders from the neighbourhood — a saga which luckily evolved into that of another Shakespearean play, All’s Well That Ends Well — rolled out soon after the Lok Sabha election results when a frontrunner to succeed Shivshankar Menon began contacting Saarc ambassadors and high commissioners in New Delhi proposing that their top political bosses back home should attend Modi’s swearing-in.

Ostensibly, this man’s contacts with the ambassadors and high commissioners came with the concurrence of the incoming Prime Minister. But in the light of detailed revelations to this writer about the sequence of events subsequently, it is doubtful whether Modi was adequately briefed at that stage about the pros and cons, the pitfalls and advantages, of this initiative before the aspirant for the top security affairs job was allowed to engage in his activities.

The puzzled Saarc envoys, almost all of them veterans in their profession with long and varied experience of handling such invitations, refused to act, however, because they did not know the locus standi of this frontrunner other than reports in the media about his status, some of them planted suitably with favourable frills.

The envoys began consulting each other and collectively decided that they would not even send any telegrams about the initiative unless they received word about any invitation through channels that were correct in terms of protocol.

Meanwhile, other aspirants for the national security adviser’s job joined in the unseemly scramble to prove that they all had Modi’s ear and were inviting South Asian leaders on his behalf. Each aspirant tried to pull down the other in this process of proving that they alone were acting on behalf of the BJP.

One Saarc envoy who naturally wants to remain anonymous - because no one is keen to get on the wrong side of the new government even before it has assumed office - told this writer that the Sri Lankan high commissioner was “shocked out of his wits” when the freelancer said President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be welcome here on Monday.

But according to accounts given to this writer, the high commissioner listened in silence to the freelancer and later consulted several retired diplomats, including some with BJP links but who were not hankering after jobs in the new government.

Had enough thought gone into the idea of these invitations? The high commissioner wanted to know because there would be a fallout for Rajapaksa from the visit, not just for Modi.

This high commissioner’s doubts were vindicated yesterday when the chief minister of Sri Lanka’s northern province and the island’s leading Tamil voice, C.V. Wigneswaran, publicly snubbed Rajapaksa and refused to join the President in his trip to New Delhi. The high commissioner alluded in conversations with his peers to the fallout in Tamil Nadu but made it clear that it was none of his business.

Days later, and well before the initiative became public, it was going nowhere. Since the aspirants for the national security adviser’s job all wanted to individually take credit for a diplomatic coup, they did not see any need to liaise with the ministry of external affairs, the proper channel for dealing with the invitations.

Modi then sensed a disaster in the making both in terms of public relations and by way of domestic political as well as diplomatic fallout. He was not going to begin his prime ministership on a wrong foot. He initiated a process of getting feedback on this issue from people who had no stake in it except the wish that the initiative should succeed.

After such consultations, directly and through trusted aides, the Prime Minister-designate discussed the invitations to neighbourhood leaders with the President. Pranab Mukherjee stressed the imperative of giving the lead role for the initiative to the ministry of external affairs and putting no chains on South Block’s professionalism.

Although no one would formally confirm this, it is reliably understood that the first, if informal, outreach on this to South Block was made by the President’s aides.

During consultations that took place after the freelance efforts in the initiative fell flat, opinion seems to have emerged that a better option would have been to send a special envoy to Islamabad -- preferably a BJP leader at the level of Ravi Shankar Prasad or Rajiv Pratap Rudy - to discuss the invitation with top aides to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, such as his foreign policy adviser Sartaj Aziz and his confidant Tariq Fatemi.

A special envoy could have firmed up the process and avoided the unseemly spectacle on domestic television for two days of anti-Pakistan rhetoric that has already vitiated the atmosphere for Sharif’s visit. A special envoy could also have assured Islamabad on behalf of Modi that the new Prime Minister meant serious business and was not looking for a public relations gimmick for himself.

The ministry of external affairs is in no position to give such assurances at this stage, but a special envoy from the BJP who is potentially a minister in the incoming government could easily do so on behalf of Modi.

It is now clear that Sharif was looking for such assurances that would also have strengthened his bargaining chips with the army general headquarters in Rawalpindi in arguing that he should accept Modi’s invitation.

It also emerged during belated consultations that the BJP should have engaged in back-channel contacts with the Tamil National Alliance and its leader, chief minister Wigneswaran, before inviting the Sri Lankan President and tried to bring the TNA on board.

By not doing so, the incoming Prime Minister has allowed non-BJP parties in Tamil Nadu to seize the initiative on the one hand and left Wigneswaran with no option but to reject Rajapaksa’s request to join him on the India trip that was made in a letter from Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, G.L. Peiris.