Friday, May 23, 2014

Abki Baar Modi SAARCar

Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi has invited the leaders of all SAARC nations to his inauguration ceremony, thus opening a new chapter in diplomatic relations of India with its neighbours.

All of them, barring Pakistan, have confirmed their participation and would be represented by their Head of State / Government, except Bangladesh (Sheikh Hasina is on a visit to Japan). Given that the South Asian leaders have not gathered at one place in a long time, their confluence in this setting will reiterate India’s pre-eminent position in the South Asian region.

The emphasis on SAARC in Modi’s first diplomatic move is likely to rejuvenate interest in the almost dysfunctional regional group. With the SAARC summit scheduled to be held later in the year, Modi has an opportunity to drive the agenda as per his vision for South Asian economy and geopolitics. If India can lead the way towards strengthening the cohesiveness of the regional group, it can stem the drift of India’s neighbours into China’s strategic embrace.

The invitation to Pakistan, however, has met some resistance from experts due to recent skirmishes on the LoC. These objections are apparently hasty, because the meet is not of a bilateral character. Pakistan comes as a part of the SAARC package, whether we like it or not. Any exclusion of Pak from the SAARC grouping would have begun Modi-Sharif relationship on a wrong footing. Nawaz Sharif is also likely to visit, as he risks being sidelined in the South Asian club by being absent. Throughout the election season, Modi has been seen quite apprehensively across the border due to his anti-Pak rhetoric during the campaign. This meeting will give both Modi and Sharif a chance to understand each other and clear any misgivings at the outset of their relationship.

Despite Jayalalitha’s strong reservations, Sri Lankan President has been extended an invitation. The message to regional political groups is loud and clear that India’s foreign policy cannot be dictated by a particular State. With the strong mandate received by BJP in the General Elections, it is time for the Centre to reclaim its rightful control on the foreign affairs, which are in the exclusive domain of the Central Government.

The significance of a friendly neighbourhood has been recognized since the Nehruvian years, and it can be achieved only through closer economic integration and political cooperation among South Asian nations. This invitation to SAARC leaders is only the first step towards that end.

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