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Narendra Modi to meet Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif on his first day as PM

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-05-2014 Bibhudatta Pradhan

New Delhi: On his first official day as India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi will host Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as the nuclear-armed neighbours seek to bolster ties that have been strained for decades.

In an unprecedented move, Sharif on Monday attended Modi’s swearing-in ceremony along with other regional leaders, his first visit to India in 23 years. Modi’s party this month won a parliamentary majority for the first time in 30 years.

“This could help in turning a page in our relations,” Sharif said in an interview with Indian television channel NDTV on Monday. “We should remove fears, mistrust and misgivings about each other.”

Border conflicts and terrorist strikes have undermined efforts to bring peace and boost trade between India and Pakistan, which have a combined population of more than 1.4 billion. The nations have fought three wars since 1947 and both claim the disputed region of Kashmir.

Tuesday’s meeting will take place at Hyderabad House, a former palace close to the ceremonial avenue in New Delhi. The nations could look to sign deals expanding trade in electricity and hydrocarbon products and make it easier for banks to open branches, the Indian Express reported, without saying where it got the information.

Trade benefits

Sharif won elections last year to become Pakistan’s Prime Minister for the third time and has pledged to improve ties with India. He’s on his first visit to India since 1991, when he attended former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral in New Delhi.

India and Pakistan’s prime ministers are meeting for the second time since peace talks resumed in 2011 after dialogue was shattered when Pakistani gunmen attacked Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people. The country’s leaders last met in September in New York, where they pledged new measures to enforce the cease-fire in Kashmir.

India’s economy will expand 5.4% in the fiscal year through 31 March, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts, after averaging growth of more than 7% in the past decade. Pakistan’s economic growth will slow to 3.1% in 2014 from 3.6% in 2013, the IMF forecasts.

While India and Pakistan share a 2,000-mile border and have mutually understandable languages, trade between the nations totaled $2.6 billion last year. That’s less than 0.5% of India’s combined commerce with other nations, according to government data.

Attacks, obstacles

“While we want closer ties with Pakistan, I don’t think it would be possible,” said Dipankar Banerjee, founding director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, who commanded troops on the border with Pakistan. There are elements within Pakistan strongly against any such moves. They will try to put obstacles in the way of any rapprochement.

Pakistan has yet to follow through on a November 2011 pledge to grant India most-favoured nation status, which provide greater access to Indian exports. The move would remove 1,200 items from a banned list.

Some progress on peace talks has been made even while breakthroughs have been elusive. Eighteen months ago, India and Pakistan agreed on a new visa regime to make travel between the countries easier, a measure meant to spur regional trade and establish trust.

Before Sharif’s visit, Pakistan released 151 Indian fishermen it had detained and said it’s seeking reciprocal measures. Modi welcomed the move on his Twitter account.

“We need to convert our similarities into strength,” Sharif said in the NDTV interview.

Later on Tuesday, Modi is expected to announce his cabinet portfolios as he looked to hit the ground running on his first day in office.

The job of finance minister is expected to be handed to Arun Jaitley, an urbane lawyer who has emerged as one of Modi’s chief lieutenants.

Several television channels reported that Modi was likely to chair his first cabinet meeting on Tuesday evening in another signal of his desire to promptly set out clear targets for his government.

In a statement to mark his swearing-in, Modi said his election had handed him a mandate for “development, good governance and stability.” Bloomberg

AFP contributed to this story.

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