Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first engagement after being sworn-in for a second term was a meeting with visiting Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov in Rashtrapati Bhavan at 10.15 pm Thursday — soon after the swearing-in ceremony and the State Banquet.
On Friday, Modi will start his second term in office with a series of bilateral meetings with the visiting leaders of countries from BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), who had been invited for the swearing-in ceremony.
The first meeting is with Bangladesh President Mohammed Abdul Hamid at 10.30 am in Hyderabad House. It will be followed by meetings with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, Nepal Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli and Bhutan Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering.
Officials said these meetings have been allotted about 20 minutes each, but could be extended.
By inviting leaders from BIMSTEC countries, Kyrgyz Republic and Mauritius to his swearing-in ceremony, sources said, Modi has made a carefully calibrated move that signals a major outreach to India’s neighbourhood from the Bay of Bengal to Central Asia, as well as the Indian diaspora.
In 2014, Modi had invited SAARC leaders, and the then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s attendance had raised hopes of a new beginning in bilateral ties. This time, SAARC’s exclusion appears to be aimed at keeping Pakistan out of New Delhi’s engagement with its neighbours.
By meeting Jeenbekov, India is displaying an outreach to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which is headed by the Kyrgyz leader, and has China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan as members.
India, which became a member of the SCO along with Pakistan in 2017, wants to leverage its membership to advance its strategic objectives — counter-terrorism and connectivity. Modi is likely to attend the SCO summit in Bishkek on June 13-14.
Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, who was also the chief guest at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas this January, is seen as one of the most well-placed People of Indian Origin in the world. Since Modi has invested diplomatic capital in his outreach to the Indian diaspora since 2014, this invite is seen as “a natural choice”.
The key message, however, is the outreach to BIMSTEC, which includes Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan, besides India. The BIMSTEC had held its fourth summit in Kathmandu in September 2018.
New Delhi’s engagement with BIMSTEC rose from the ashes of SAARC. In October 2016, following the Uri attack, India gave a renewed push for the grouping that had existed for almost two decades but been largely ignored. Alongside the BRICS summit in Goa, Modi hosted an outreach summit with BIMSTEC leaders.
That September, some of these BIMSTEC countries had supported New Delhi’s call for a boycott of the SAARC summit scheduled in Islamabad in November 2016. As the summit was postponed, India had claimed victory in isolating Pakistan, which it had accused of carrying out the Uri attack.
BIMSTEC subsequently emerged as a regional platform where five SAARC countries could gather and discuss sub-regional cooperation. India had long felt that the vast potential of SAARC was being underutilised and opportunities lost due to either “a lack of response or an obstructionist approach from Pakistan”.
The search for an alternative had been evident at the 2014 SAARC summit in Kathmandu, where Modi had said opportunities must be realised “through SAARC or outside it” and “among us all or some of us.” That was seen as an important signal to Pakistan, as well as to fellow SAARC members.