NEW DELHI - Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the inauguration of Narendra Modi as his Indian counterpart Monday was a “great opportunity” for the two nuclear neighbours to open a new chapter in relations.
“It is a great moment and a great opportunity,” Nawaz Sharif, who was in New Delhi as a guest for the swearing-in ceremony, told an Indian TV channel.
“This is a chance to reach out to each other. Both governments have a strong mandate,” he added, according to a transcript provided by the Pakistan High Commission. “This could help in turning a new page in our relations.”
PM Nawaz Sharif, smartly attired in a charcoal grey suit, was warmly welcomed at the Presidential Palace as he arrived for the ceremony.
He shook hands with the former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, former president Abdul Kalam Azad and others, and was seated next to the outgoing Indian PM.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he could easily work with India’s new government led by Narendra Modi. He said he was carrying a message of goodwill, love and friendship for the Indian people.
Nawaz Sharif is the first Pakistani prime minister to attend the inauguration of an Indian leader since the creation of the two countries in 1947 after the end of British rule.
Nawaz Sharif said that the neighbours should use their common heritage to help overcome their differences.
“No two nations have ever possessed so much of cultural and traditional similarities as India and Pakistan. Why not turn the similarities into our strength?” said Sharif.
“We should remove fears, mistrust and misgivings about each other.
“Both countries should rid the region of instability and insecurity that has plagued us for decades.”
Nawaz Sharif promised to pick up the threads of a failed peace process which went on during his second term in office - which coincided with the last BJP government in India.
In 1999, then-Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee rode a bus to the Pakistani city of Lahore to sign an accord with Sharif, but three months later the neighbours nearly went to war over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir.
Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s prime minister in an elaborate ceremony at New Delhi’s resplendent presidential palace on Monday, after a sweeping election victory that ended two terms of rule by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
Millions of Indians watched the inauguration live on television as the 63-year-old Hindu nationalist leader, once thought of as too divisive to lead the world’s largest democracy, took his oath along with his cabinet members in the palace’s forecourt.
The low-caste son of a tea stall-owner, Modi has given India its first parliamentary majority after 25 years of coalition governments, which means he has ample room to advance reforms that started over two decades ago but have stalled in recent years.
The BJP has long advocated a tough stance on Pakistan, with which India has a major territorial dispute in Kashmir, and Modi has been seen as a hardliner on issues of national security.
In that respect, Modi’s decision to invite Sharif for his inauguration and bilateral talks on Tuesday came as a surprise and raised hopes for a thaw in relations between the rivals, which have been particularly frosty since 2008 attacks on the city of Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants.
In a message released to fellow Indians and citizens of the world, Modi said the election had delivered a mandate for “development, good governance and stability”.
“Together we will script a glorious future for India. Let us together dream of a strong, developed and inclusive India that actively engages with the global community to strengthen the cause of world peace and development,” he said.
The pomp and ceremony unfolded as the summer evening closed in at Rashtrapati Bhavan, a colonial-era sandstone mansion with 340 rooms in the heart of New Delhi. Looking on were some 4,000 guests, ranging from members of the defeated Nehru-Gandhi family to top industrialists, Bollywood actors, Hindu holy men and the leaders of several neighbouring countries.
Modi supporters exploded fireworks in celebration a few blocks away at the headquarters of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after the new prime minister was sworn in.
Modi kicked things off on Sunday with an announcement that he would streamline the cabinet, a move to a more centralised system of governing aimed at breaking decision-making bottlenecks widely blamed for dragging down economic growth.
Modi said he would appoint super ministers in charge of several departments to make ministries coordinate better.
Arun Jaitley, 61, is the front runner to be named finance minister, party sources said. One of the top corporate lawyers in the country and a close Modi aide, Jaitley served in a previous BJP administration as commerce minister.
Modi’s pledge to overhaul the flagging economy won over voters, along with his rags-to-riches story and reputation as a clean and efficient chief minister of prosperous Gujarat state.
Modi plans to slash 26 government positions under a cabinet revamp set to be unveiled later in a bid to allow more nimble decision-making, reports said.
Modi’s government will number 45 including him, down from 71 in outgoing prime minister Manmohan Singh’s scandal-tainted Congress-led coalition administration, the Press Trust of Indian news agency and NDTV channel reported.
“Team Modi” will have 23 full-rank cabinet ministers, down from Singh’s 28, while the number of junior ministers known as ministers of state will be reduced to 22 from 43 in Singh’s government, the reports said.
The BJP’s most senior woman leader Sushma Swaraj was widely tipped to be foreign minister.
BJP president Rajnath Singh was predicted to become home minister, while founding BJP member L.K. Advani and fellow elderly stalwart Murli Manohar Joshi looked set for disappointment.
Smriti Irani, an actress famed for her role in a TV soap opera, confirmed she was getting a ministerial berth in a cabinet which she said would feature women prominently.
Modi “has given opportunities to many women who come from many humble backgrounds,” Irani, linked to the human resources minister portfolio, told NDTV.
The ceremony was attended by leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, Nepal Tshering Tobgay, Sushil Koirala and Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. Speaker Shirin Chaudhury represented Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will hold bilateral talks with Modi on Tuesday in a bid to improve ties. He will also be meeting Indian President Pranab Mukherjee before leaving for Pakistan later in the afternoon.
The Prime Minister is accompanied by his son Hussain Nawaz Sharif, Advisor to PM on National Security Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, Special Assistant to PM on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Secretary to the Prime Minister Javaid Aslam and Political Secretary to Prime Minister Syed Asif Saeed Kirmani.
Many supporters see Modi as India’s answer to the neo-liberal former US President Ronald Reagan or British leader Margaret Thatcher. One foreign editor has ventured Modi could be so transformative he turns out to be “India’s Deng Xiaoping”, the leader who set China on its path of spectacular economic growth.
Even before his inauguration, Modi made waves on the global stage, where once he was treated by many with suspicion - and by some as a pariah - for Hindu-Muslim violence that erupted 12 years ago in Gujarat, the western state he ruled.
He has spoken with the presidents of the United States and Russia, and he has become one of only three people that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe follows on Twitter. The US administration denied Modi a visa in 2005, but President Barack Obama has now invited him to the White House.