NEW DELHI - Indian prime minister-elect Narendra Modi has invited Pakistan’s premier Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in next Monday in a surprising diplomatic statement that he intends to improve strained relations.
A government official said Wednesday invitations to the ceremony had been sent to all heads of government from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) which includes Pakistan. “These communications have just gone off in the afternoon and we are now awaiting a response,” said Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin. Pakistan’s Foreign Office confirmed on Wednesday Pakistan has received Indian invitation, but no decision about attending the ceremony has been made as yet.
Meanwhile, the US has also welcomes Modi’s invitation for Sharif. Modi will take the oath as prime minister 10 days after his right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP scored a landslide victory, securing the first majority by a single party in 30 years.
The hardline leader was expected to usher in a more muscular foreign policy, insisting on the campaign trail other countries would respect India only if it showed strong political leadership.
Sharif has hailed Modi’s “impressive victory” and many diplomats hope the two men can thaw ties between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
Sharif has cited his working relationship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s last prime minister under the BJP, as a reason for optimism, according to diplomatic sources.
In 1999, during Sharif’s second term in power, Vajpayee rode a bus to the Pakistani city of Lahore to sign a peace accord and raise hopes of normalised ties.
The invitation signals Modi’s intention to tackle India’s most troubled bilateral relationship at a time when Sharif is also keen on talks, analysts say.
“It’s a very important gesture,” said Manoj Joshi, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think-tank.
“It definitely shows Modi’s intentions to focus on immediate neighbours and it’s a realistic signal: realism in the sense that unless you have good relations with neighbours you can hardly focus beyond,” he said.
The traditionally strained ties warmed slightly toward the end of the term of outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but still remain frosty amid mutual distrust and regular skirmishes along their disputed Kashmir border.
Singh’s Congress party, which crashed to its worst-ever defeat in the elections, brushed aside political hostility and welcomed the invitation to Saarc leaders.
“It’s the prerogative of the prime minister who he wants to invite,” Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi told a news conference.
“We hope this positive initiative will translate into something substantive.”
Modi warned during campaigning that talks could not be held with Pakistan until all violence ceased.
Key issues remain the disputed Kashmir region and militancy, which New Delhi frequently accuses Pakistan of backing.
While Pakistan’s civilian leaders and business community favour closer ties, many ordinary Pakistani revile Modi. He is tainted by 2002 religious riots in his home state of Gujarat that killed 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.