NEW DELHI— Leaders of South Asian countries are due in the Indian capital to attend the swearing-in ceremony of India’s prime minister elect, Narendra Modi. The unprecedented invitations are being seen as a signal that the new Indian leader will focus on improving ties with neighboring countries including rival Pakistan.
The sprawling forecourt of the presidential palace in New Delhi has been spruced up and tight security put in place for the ceremony in which Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi will take the oath as India’s prime minister Monday evening.
The event will be more high profile than ever before. Among the audience will be the presidents of Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Maldives, and the prime ministers of Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Mauritius. Bangladesh, whose prime minister is travelling to Japan, will be represented by its speaker of parliament.
BJP spokesman Siddharth Nath Singh said the invites - the first of their kind by an Indian prime minister - signaled the next government’s intentions.
“It’s a good gesture that in the subcontinent India is ready to work with everybody. Certainly it adds to the strength of each other if the neighborhood is strong,” he said.
The outreach to South Asian leaders, including Pakistan, took many aback. Modi has a reputation as a hardliner. His tough campaign rhetoric reinforced fears that he is hawkish.
South Asia expert Sukh Deo Muni, at the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi, said Modi’s bold move in reaching out to India’s neighbors even before he formally took charge was meant to allay such concerns. Muni said it showed that when in power, Modi would be pragmatic.
And although most attention was focused on the “olive branch” extended to Pakistan, Muni said the initiative is not limited to Islamabad.
“In the course of election campaign there were some harsh words said about some of the neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh in particular. There were also fears that because of the BJP’s alliance in Tamil Nadu with two of the extremist groups on Tamil ethnic issues, there may be problems and questions marks in Sri Lanka. To that extent this initiative actually tries to smoothen that feeling. I don’t think this is Pakistani-specific,” said Muni.
Modi takes power at a time when India’s ties with its neighbors have not always been smooth. Besides troubled relations with Pakistan, there is conflict over issues such as immigration and river sharing with Bangladesh. Concerns of regional Tamil parties over the alleged treatment of the ethnic Tamil minority have held back New Delhi’s relations with Sri Lanka.
But analysts said that for a leader bent upon boosting economics and trade, closer engagement in South Asia was crucial.
The move has also won praise by many who feel India has let China make inroads into the region by not doing enough to address the concerns of its neighbors. Known as “big brother,” India is the biggest country in the region.
Unlike previous governments, Modi’s strong mandate will give him the space to forge his own path, unhampered by regional allies or even factions within his own party.
Hardliners in the BJP have advocated a tough stance against Islamabad. However, analyst Muni said the Pakistani prime minister’s decision to come to New Delhi would give the Indian leader a freer hand in attempting progress on peace with Islamabad.
“Modi can also stand up against some of his extremist factions in his political constituency or even within India. There are security agencies which may not have much interest in resolving issues with Pakistan and certainly there are extremist Hindu groups. All these factions will be snubbed once Nawaz Sharif comes,“ said Muni.
For the time being, Modi has won praise for signaling that building peace and trust in South Asia will be a priority. But analysts said his gesture would have to be backed up in the days to come with more substantive measures.