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Modi swearing-in seen making diplomatic inroads

LiveMint logoLiveMint 26-05-2014 Elizabeth Roche

New Delhi: The presence of eight foreign heads of government at the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday is illustrative of the fact that India and its neighbours are looking to re-script bilateral ties and seeking innovative ways of engagement, officials and analysts said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Bangladesh parliament speaker Shirin Chaudhry, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonchen Tshering Tobgay, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa were the South Asian leaders who attended Modi’s swearing in ceremony.

Completing the line-up was Mauritius Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam, whose country is one of the major routes of foreign investment into India and is home to a sizeable Indian diaspora.

It was the first time that foreign leaders had been invited to the oath-taking ceremony of the Indian prime minister—adding its own brand of uniqueness to the event.

“The prime minister has clearly indicated that he will look at innovative ways to reach out to India’s neighbours,” said a person familiar with the development on the Indian side. “The message (to India’s neighbours) is—we wish to be engaged with you. The neighbourhood is where our major interests are.” The person declined to be named.

Former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh noted that the new prime minister was implementing the foreign policy directives mentioned in the BJP’s poll manifesto. “The BJP had emphasised improved relations with neighbours, importance to diaspora plus an emphasis on security both internally and externally and broadly, this is the path that the government seems to be following,” he said.

The new government is working on the basic premise that a resurgent India, if it has to find its place in the world, will have to get right its relations with its neighbours, Mansingh added.

The latest commerce ministry figures show that India’s exports to the South Asian countries totalled $17.3 billion between April 2013 and March 2014. Imports from the region in the same period totalled $2.45 billion.India’s total exports to the world in the same period stood at $312 billion while total imports were at $450 billion. India shares land borders with Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh besides a maritime boundary with Sri Lanka.

A South Asian diplomat, who did not wish to be named, said his country was “very pleasantly surprised by this gesture from Mr (Narendra) Modi. It augurs well for the shared future of this region.

“We hope to get a clearer picture of his vision for the region when our leader meets him (on Tuesday),” the diplomat said of bilateral meetings between Modi and the visiting leaers.

Arriving in New Delhi on Monday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described the ocassion as a “great moment and a great opportunity,” for the two South Asian countries to improve ties. The two bitter rivals have fought three of their four wars since 1947 over Kashmir, on which both claim sovereignty. On Sunday, both Pakistan and Sri Lanka released Indian fishermen imprisoned in their jails for straying across their maritime boundaries—a thorny issue in India.

In line with the emphasis placed by its manifesto on ties with India’s neighbours, one of the first moves made by Modi after the BJP won a strong mandate—282 seats for a majority on its own in the 543-member Lok Sabha—was to invite South Asian leaders to the new government’s swearing-in.

“The strong mandate that the new Indian government has received, it is hoped that India will take bold initiatives to forge closer relations with its neighbours,” said a second South Asian diplomat who did not want to be named.

He recalled that India’s previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was often seen as reactive and under pressure from its alliance partners or the Congress party itself. “Several good initiatives taken or announced were left undone,” he added.

Though outgoing prime minister Manmohan Singh had given top billing to relations with neighbours, in line with the government’s philosophy that a peaceful periphery was required for India’s economic growth, ties with many countries deteriorated.

Ties with Pakistan hit a low following the 2008 Mumbai attacks and put on hold a four-year-old peace dialogue that was resumed after a 2004 visit to Pakistan by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of BJP. Talks resumed in February 2011 but stalled again following the killing of Indian soldiers in Kashmir along the de facto border between the two countries.

Relations with Sri Lanka have been on an uneven keel since 2009, when the three-decade old Tamil separatist conflict ended in the island nation. India has been pressing Sri Lanka to bring into the national mainstream the island’s minority Tamils, whose sense of alienation spawned the conflict. Succumbing to pressure from its key ally in Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), UPA twice voted against Sri Lanka’s human rights record.

With Bangladesh, Singh’s government was seen as unable to deliver on key issues including ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement signed in 2011. Neither was Singh able to sign a pact to share waters of the Teesta river given opposition from a former coalition ally—West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party.

India’s neighbourhood policy received another jolt when the then Maldives government decided to terminate the $511 million contract given to an international consortium including India’s GMR Group in 2012. This came after India supported then Maldives president Mohammed Waheed Hassan, following accusations against Hassan of ousting his predecessor Mohamed Nasheed in a coup.

Dayan Jayatilleka, a former Sri Lankan diplomat, described Modi’s invitation and the response as a “brilliant projection of India’s soft power.”

Modi, who has an image as a “hard man,” has shown that the neighbourhood and India’s neighbours are a “priority,” he said by phone from Colombo. In response, “all of India’s neighbours have felt a compulsion to come to Delhi, given the kind of magnetism India has started to exert with this invitation,” Jayatilleka said.

The invitations to South Asian leaders and their response was “also a signal to the world of India’s leading role in the South Asia region and India is the natural centre of that region,” he said.

Jayatilleka said Singh was a well liked and respected leader “but he was never seen as his own man. Mr Modi comes with a very different profile.

“He appears very much in control, is seen as his own man, a rather presidential prime minister who has opened up avenues for cooperation,” he said.

An indication of this was the way Modi overrode objections from Tamil parties including an alliance partner to stand by his decision to invite Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse to Monday’s event, he said. Rajapakse is seen as tainted by alleged war crimes commited by Sri Lankan army against that country’s ethnic Tamil minority. “Given this, the Sri Lankan administration would be rethinking its attitude to India,” Jayatilleka said.

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