May 28, 2014 12:05:09 am
It is not often that a newly appointed leader of a nation spends his first day at work meeting counterparts from other countries. That is precisely what Prime Minister Narendra Modi did on Tuesday when he sat down separately with leaders of the seven neighbouring countries who joined the inauguration of the new government. The warm regional response to Modi’s surprising invitation lent a special charm to the ceremonies marking the graceful regime change in Delhi after a bitterly fought election. Modi’s invitation was not just about celebrating Indian democracy. It was meant to convey definitive political signals about the new government’s foreign policy orientation to audiences at home and abroad.
Modi was seeking to dispel the widespread international impression that his government will embark on a confrontational path with the neighbours. The new prime minister was also signalling to his political base that notwithstanding the heated rhetoric against some of the neighbours during the election, he would do what is right by India’s national interest. More broadly, Modi was promising to end Delhi’s political neglect of the neighbourhood in recent years and to pursue a new vision for promoting regional peace and prosperity. At the same time, Modi was reminding the neighbours that Delhi now has a strong government that will not let others undermine India’s regional interests. He was also reassuring them that India will abide by the agreements that it negotiates. In asking the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to address Tamil minority rights or telling Dhaka that he will respect the accords signed by the UPA government, Modi was underlining the new political resolve in Delhi.
Will Modi’s strategic purposefulness work with Pakistan, India’s most difficult bilateral relationship? Piercing the veil that usually masks conversations between Indian and Pakistani leaders, it is not difficult to glean some basic outcomes. Delhi appears to have responded to Islamabad’s call to resume the bilateral dialogue that has been suspended since the beginning of last year. The terms of this dialogue and its mechanics are likely to be sorted out in the near future. On his part, Modi flagged India’s strong concerns about cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan. While Modi can only wait to judge if Sharif’s words on curbing terror are credible, India would like to see Pakistan take the first steps towards trade normalisation. The next few weeks might see a series of reciprocal steps in the renewed engagement between the two nations. While noting the optimistic tone of Modi’s talks with Sharif, however, it may be best to keep our fingers crossed. For, no relationship in the world is as accident-prone as this one.
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