May 24, 2014


[But the greatest suspense surrounded the response of Mr. Sharif, who risks irritating military leaders and hard-liners in his own country by making his first official visit to India. A tentative effort to build economic and diplomatic ties ended in early 2013, when fighting along the disputed border in Kashmir derailed a tentative attempt to build economic and diplomatic ties.]

By Ellen Barry
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NEW DELHI India said Saturday that Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has accepted an invitation to attend the swearing-in of India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, in a mutual gesture that may mark a turning point in the relations between the two countries, which have been particularly frosty since early 2013.
Mr. Modi, a Hindu nationalist who promised in his campaign to make India a more muscular presence on the world stage, has broken new ground by inviting top officials from all the members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to Monday’s swearing-in, which has traditionally not included any foreign leaders.
Mr. Modi’s invitation also sent a jolt through Indian domestic politics, sending the message that he would act independently on foreign policy, not allowing decisions to be swayed by the interests of the country’s regional heavyweights. Political leaders in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, who have long defended the rights of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, were harshly critical of the decision to invite President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka.
Leaders of Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan confirmed their attendance on Thursday, and Bangladesh promised to send the speaker of its Parliament, since its prime minister will be on a long-planned visit to Japan.
But the greatest suspense surrounded the response of Mr. Sharif, who risks irritating military leaders and hard-liners in his own country by making his first official visit to India. A tentative effort to build economic and diplomatic ties ended in early 2013, when fighting along the disputed border in Kashmir derailed a tentative attempt to build economic and diplomatic ties.
Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the Indian ministry of external affairs, confirmed Mr. Sharif’s decision to attend. “Mr. Sharif is attending the ceremony, accompanied by three officials and some personal staff,” he said.
Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif will hold a short bilateral meeting on Tuesday morning, Mr. Akbaruddin said, noting that similar meetings will be held with each of the visiting leaders.A spokeswoman for the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tasneem Aslam, had initially said a decision would be made on Thursday, and leaks circulated in the Indian news media suggesting that Mr. Sharif would attend, but the announcement was delayed, pointing to tensions among Pakistani leaders.
“I think it would be a good thing,” said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and political analyst, in an interview. “There are a lot of people in Pakistan who might not want Nawaz Sharif to go to India. But if he did, it could be a positive indication that he wants to pursue a foreign policy that is independent of the military.”
The news of the invitation has been celebrated by many of Mr. Modi’s critics in India, and more approving messages came on Saturday, after Mr. Sharif accepted the invitation.
“Very glad to hear Pak PM has accepted invite, shows that he can prevail over forces inimical to good relations with India,” wrote Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir, on Twitter on Saturday. “I hope this will mark a new beginning in ties between our two countries.”
He added, “Can’t help feel sorry for others taking oath or attending because the only photo op that will matter now will be the Modi-Sharif handshake.”
Ms. Aslam, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said on Thursday that the Pakistani authorities saw peace with India as a precondition for economic development.
 “We expect that when the new government takes over in India, realizing the importance of having peace in the neighborhood, the dialogue process between Pakistan and India will resume, and that it will be a meaningful and constructive dialogue,” she said. “We expect this dialogue to be uninterrupted and uninterruptible.”
There is a paradox in the notion that Mr. Modi could introduce a thaw, since he has a reputation as a hard-liner and during the campaign, he sharply criticized the Indian National Congress party for maintaining high-level contact with Pakistan despite unresolved disputes about security. At one point, he famously told a crowd that “the heads of our soldiers are cut, but then their prime minister is fed chicken biryani.”
But Pakistani officials were hopeful that Mr. Modi would have the freedom to resume the process of building diplomatic and economic ties precisely because he, unlike his predecessor, is not vulnerable to attacks from the right, just as former President Nixon of the United States, a staunch anti-Communist, was able to reach out to China in the early 1970s.
Asked about Mr. Modi’s hawkish campaign oratory on Thursday, Ms. Aslam indicated that Pakistani leaders were not worried about it.
“We hope that when the new government takes over, the kind of atmosphere that prevailed during the election rallies will be left behind and we will get down to the business of statescraft,” she said.
After serving for more than 12 years as the leader of the state of Gujarat, Mr. Modi, an outsider to New Delhi, has little track record on matters of national foreign policy. He was powerfully imprinted by years as a full-time activist for a Hindu right-wing organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, but as a state leader,he looked overseas – especially to Asia – with a focus on economic development.
As an opening gambit, Mr. Modi’s invitation to regional leaders suggested that he would emulate Atal Vajpayee, the last prime minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party, who oversaw a steady warming in relations with Pakistan.
“There is that Nixon-in-China theory, that he is the only one who can make that unilateral degure which cannot be compromised by anyone, and there is also the idea that his DNA is so anti-Pakistan” that he could not engage with its leaders, said Amitabh Mattoo, the director of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne.
“I believe he will go for the former,” Mr. Mattoo said. “Modi, contrary to all the assumptions of his detractors, really wants to go down in history – not necessarily compromising India’s positions, but he will reach out.”
Within India, Mr. Modi’s invitation was attacked by powerful regional leaders in Tamil Nadu, who have long pressured the government in New Delhi against engaging with neighboring Sri Lanka. Late last year, Tamil politicians demanded that Mr. Modi’s predecessor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, boycott a meeting of regional leaders in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, to express India’s concern over the treatment of Tamils.
On Thursday, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, released a statement describing Mr. Modi’s invitation as “tantamount to rubbing salt into the wounds of an already deeply injured Tamil psyche.”
But the results of the election announced last week gave Mr. Modi’s party 282 seats in Parliament, meaning he can form a government without seeking the help of Ms. Jayaram, and, compared with his predecessors, he has far less to lose from alienating her. The invitation to Mr. Rajapaksa sends a powerful message to the country’s regional heavyweights that Mr. Modi will make his decisions independently.
“What happened in the last few years is that they completely abandoned responsibility and leadership, and in one shot, he is signaling to all the states that this is going to be a different game,” said C. Raja Mohan, a foreign policy analyst in New Delhi. “He is signaling that he is going to do his own thing, that he wants the freedom to do it his way.”

Declan Walsh reported from London.
@ The New York Times