Modi invites Sharif, SAARC heads May 26
In a strategically-astute move expected to yield major diplomatic dividends, the leaders of the eight Saarc member countries, including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, have been invited to attend the Narendra Modi government’s swearing-in ceremony.This is the first time that foreign heads of state and government
are being invited to the swearing-in of an Indian Prime Minister.
The surprise move to invite the Saarc leaders to the May 26 ceremony is seen as a masterstroke by Modi to reach out to the immediate neighbourhood. More important, as far as Pakistan is concerned, the invitation is seen as putting the ball in Mr Sharif’s court with regard to the peace process between the two countries.
Further, it has raised the prospect of the two PMs meeting right at the outset of Mr Modi’s tenure. It could well set the stage for an early resumption of the stalled bilateral composite dialogue process despite the BJP’s tough stance on Pakistan.
The invitations, sent by foreign secretary Sujatha Singh on behalf of Mr Modi, were formally handed over to the diplomatic representatives of the Saarc countries in New Delhi on Wednesday evening, and a formal response is awaited.It is learnt informally, though, that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and Bhutan PM Tshering Tobgay have already indicated their willingness to attend.There is no word from Pakistan officially yet, but a top aide of Mr Sharif said in Islamabad that the Pakistan PM would respond “positively” to the invitation. “We are yet to officially get the invitation. It is in the media. When we receive the invitation formally, we will surely respond positively,” he said.
It is learnt Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina Wajed may not be able to make it as she will be on an official visit to Japan at that time. But it is understood that the Speaker of Bangladesh’s Parliament, Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, will represent the country.
Explaining the move, senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley said Wednesday that a peaceful change in the world’s largest democracy was an “occasion to showcase to the whole world the strength of democracy”. He added that it was Mr Modi himself who desired that the Saarc heads of government be invited.Mr Jaitley said: “It is the Modi government’s intention to maintain good ties with its neighbours, and this is the first indication of that intention.” He said it was also an indication to India’s neighbours that “we care for them and want to maintain good relations with them”.
The Congress said it was the incoming government’s prerogative to invite Saarc leaders, including Mr Sharif, to the oath-taking.In Srinagar, chief minister Omar Abdullah and People’s Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti welcomed the move, with Ms Mufti saying it was a “good omen” and that “it’s a pleasant surprise and quite unbelievable”. The separatist groups too said it was a “good sign”.
Omar Abdullah said on Twitter: “Excellent move by @narendramodi to invite SAARC leaders, especially Pak PM, for his swearing in. Hope this is beginning of sustained talks.” He then added: “At the same time, I can’t help wonder what BJP would have said if a PM-designate Rahul Gandhi had done the same thing.”In New Delhi, external affairs ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin, asked if the invitation to the Pakistan PM marked the beginning of a better relationship with
its government, said the invites had gone out, and “let’s take responses on this, and we will take it from there rather than jump to conclusions on the basis of our first step”.Those on the guest list also include Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and Nepal PM Sushil Koirala.Mr Akbaruddin added that informal consultations with several Saarc countries were held on this on Wednesday, and that the MEA hoped to get all the responses in the next two days.With so many leaders expected at such short notice in what an Indian diplomat described as a “mini-summit”, the MEA has already begun preparations to host them.