By inviting the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations to attend his swearing in ceremony in New Delhi, and not the leaders of other states, the Prime Minister-designate of India has shown that he is able to think out of the box on foreign policy. The invite signifies a number of things: 1) that New Delhi intends to put more focus on relations with the region in the days ahead, 2) it wishes to start off on cordial terms with its neighbours some of whom are not exactly in New Delhi’s good books, 3) by doing so, Narendra Modi has sent out a message that he is in charge of what his government will be doing on foreign policy and that he wants to start afresh, and 4) Modi government is signaling that it has a good sense of what should India’s foreign policy be like that it will hit the ground running on that front.
That said, Modi government’s calculations might have hit a roadblock with the terror attack on the Indian consulate in Afghanistan’s Herat province the other day. Although no lives have been lost, with New Delhi indirectly putting the blame on Pakistan for the attack (India’s official statement said: "The main threat to Afghanistan and its peace and stability and security stems from terrorism beyond its borders”) and Kabul agreeing with that, the new government has landed itself in a dilemma. Modi had earlier accused the Congress-led government of being soft on Pakistan’s repeated provocations on the Line of Control: "The heads of our soldiers are cut but then their Prime Minister is fed chicken biryani”. Earlier, during the Kargil crisis, he had said "We won't give them chicken biryani; we will respond to a bullet with a [nuclear] bomb”. Can Modi not be accused of feeding chicken Biryani to Pakistan’s Prime Minister when the Indian mission in Afghanistan is under attack by elements from Pakistani soil? Let’s wait and watch how this is going to unfold.
Sharif’s Domestic Troubles
Moreover, that the attack in Herat comes soon after Modi invited Sharif to attend his swearing in ceremony is also significant given the fact that there has been some unease within the Pakistan army establishment and the ISI about Sharif’s visit to New Delhi. Indeed, there are conflicting views within Pakistan on Modi’s invite to Sharif. The political establishment in Pakistan seems to be in favour of Sharif’s visit with Pakistan’s Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly Khurshid Ahmed Shah urging Sharif to accept the invitation, as it would be in the interest of the people of the two countries. The Pakistan Foreign Office has been pushing for it too. However, there have been no positive signals from the Pakistan army. Also, LeT chief Hafiz Saeed has publicly expressed his unease with the Sharif’s potential visit to New Delhi.
For Nawaz Sharif, this is a catch 22 situation: Damned if Sharif turns up in New Delhi, damned if he doesn’t turn up. If he actually makes it to Modi’s swearing in, Sharif will be castigated by the Pakistan army and the jihadi elements in Pakistan and risking that may not be very wise for him given that he has so far managed to keep things in control in Pakistan. On the other hand, if he now decides not to come it would mean a number of things. First of all, it will be interpreted as the Pakistan army’s way of showing him his place in the system. Secondly, it will certainly be seen that he cannot take any independent foreign policy decisions regarding India. Thirdly, it will undoubtedly weaken Sharif’s position in the days to come. And finally, he will lose out on a golden opportunity to build a personal rapport with India’s new leader besides losing out on the opportunity to engage Modi government’s new regional strategy.
New Delhi Needs to Reciprocate
On the positive side though, most of the leaders Modi has invited have confirmed their participation. From the Sri Lankan President to the Afghan President, the list figures the-who-is-who in the South Asian region. This is a rare moment in Indian diplomacy when it gives up on its desire to constantly court the West and is willing to engage the states in the region. One is unsure how long this engaging the neighbourhood strategy is going to last. If past is any indication of the future, the trend may not last too long. For instance, the outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the United States nine times during his two terms, which is exactly the number of times he visited the eight SAARC countries put together. New Delhi’s not so warm attitude towards Islamabad was, in a sense, visible from the number of times the Prime Minister of India visited Pakistan in the past ten years: zero. This is despite the fact that Pakistani leaders visited New Delhi three times in the past ten years: Ex-Pakistani presidents Pervez Musharraf and Asif Zardari and ex-prime ministers Yousaf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervez Ashraf visited India while in office.
(Source: Greater KAshmir, May 25, 2014. URL: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/2014/May/25/modi-s-coronation-diplomacy-23.asp)