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Six-yard diplomacy

New Delhi, June 26: A sari can, sometimes, say sorry better than a thousand words -- even in the hardened corridors of South Asian diplomacy.

Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj today gifted Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina a cream-coloured South Indian silk sari while visiting her in Dhaka on a trip aimed at mending fences after an election campaign that left Bangladesh quietly fuming.

Hasina, her host, wasn’t going to be left behind.

The Bangladesh Prime Minister promptly turned to her aides, who handed her a gift Hasina and her sister Rehana had handpicked for Sushma - a Jamdani sari, officials present at the meeting said.

The sari exchange follows just three weeks after Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sent a sari for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mother. Modi had given Sharif a shawl for his mother when the Pakistan leader visited New Delhi for the swearing-in ceremony of the new government.

“Nawaz Sharif ji has sent a wonderful white Sari for my Mother,” Modi had tweeted on June 5. “I am really grateful to him and will send it to my mother very soon.” Sharif’s daughter Maryam had tweeted a few days earlier, thanking Modi for the shawl which she said her “father personally delivered” to his mother.

Modi in his campaign speeches had repeatedly accused the Manmohan Singh government of being soft on Pakistan and Bangladesh, suggesting that he principally saw the two neighbours as adversaries, and in the case of Bangladesh, as a source of illegal immigrants.

Those speeches worried Dhaka more than Islamabad - better accustomed to rhetoric aimed at milking the perpetually tense ties between the neighbours for electoral gains.

Although Hasina could not attend Modi’s swearing-in on May 26 because she was in Japan on a pre-scheduled visit, her absence - all other neighbourhood heads of government attended - left the new government concerned, a senior official accepted.

“Was it just what we were told, or was the Bangladesh Prime Minister sending a subtle message?” the official wondered. “We weren’t sure.”

Sushma though knows the power of diplomacy through saris particularly when it comes to Hasina.

As information and broadcasting minister in the earlier NDA government in 1998, Sushma had visited Dhaka with a sari for Hasina, who was Prime Minister in a previous term then. Weeks later, Hasina sent a specially-woven sari for Sushma, and the two women have since maintained infrequent but regular communication, officials said.

Sushma, when she returns to New Delhi tomorrow, will need to hand over the Jamdani sari to the

toshakhana, the government’s treasure room where all gifts received by officials from foreign dignitaries are evaluated. If the sari is valued at over Rs 3,500 which is likely the foreign minister can pay the balance and take her gift home.