NEW DELHI: South Asia’s bitterest rivals have an opportunity to turn a page in their history of troubled relations, Pakistan’s prime minister said yesterday after he and other regional leaders arrived for the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi.
Modi’s invitation to leaders from across the region means his inauguration as prime minister in New Delhi is as much a show of his determination to be a key player on the global stage as a celebration of his stunning election victory.
Nawaz Sharif said the nuclear-armed neighbours, which were traumatically separated at the end of British rule in 1947 and have fought three wars since, should together rid their region of the instability that has plagued them for decades.
“We should remove fears, mistrust and misgivings about each other,” he told the NDTV news network in the Indian capital, a few hours before Modi’s elaborate swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace, a colonial-era sandstone mansion.
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.
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 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.
Vikram Sood, former head of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, told Reuters that inviting all the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was “an astute” diplomatic gesture.
“This augurs well for the region, and an improvement of relations all over the region is possible if these moves are followed by other steps, bilaterally and multilaterally,” he said. As a gesture of goodwill following their invitations, Pakistan and Sri Lanka released hundreds of Indian fishermen jailed for straying into their neighbours’ territorial waters.
India is the biggest South Asian nation, but friendships with neighbours have soured in recent years, allowing China to fill the gap.
China has built a port in Sri Lanka and is involved in upgrading another in Bangladesh, besides military and civil assistance to long-time ally Pakistan, heightening Delhi’s anxieties of being boxed in.