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Indian Leader Invites Pakistani Premier to Swearing-In

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New Delhi – India’s incoming prime minister, Narendra Modi, on Wednesday invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to attend his swearing-in ceremony next week, an unusual gesture that has inspired hopes that the change in government will lead to improved relations between the two countries.

Modi, a Hindu nationalist who promised during his campaign to make India a more muscular presence on the world stage, has broken new ground by extending invitations to the leaders of all of India’s neighbors.

Previous swearing-in ceremonies have been small affairs, a reflection of the country’s inward-looking approach to politics. Modi has made it clear that he hopes to make India a leader in its own neighborhood, knitting together a regional trade and economic bloc.

The invitation to Sharif, who has never made an official visit to India, was the biggest surprise. A tentative effort to build economic and diplomatic ties under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Indian National Congress fell apart last year, when deadly skirmishes broke out along the contested border in Kashmir. Singh, usually soft-spoken, declared that “after this dastardly act, there can’t be business as usual with Pakistan.”

Pakistani officials have expressed hope that Modi, who has a reputation as a hard-liner, and the Bharatiya Janata Party would seize an opportunity to rebuild ties, precisely because he is much less vulnerable to charges of weakness. The relationship saw improvement the last time the BJP took power, in 1998, under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

“We did have very good relations with Vajpayee,” said a Pakistani Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “Congress is always looking at its back when dealing with Pakistan, because it was open to an attack from the right wing. But BJP would never face that barrage of criticism.”

“It would be like Nixon in China,” the official said.

Stephen P. Cohen, author of a recent book on the relationship between Pakistan and India, said Sharif would likely reciprocate Modi’s gesture – but only if he can win the support of Pakistan’s powerful military.

“I think we might see a dialogue between Modi and Sharif,” Cohen said. “But Sharif has an army problem and Modi has a right-wing ideological problem.”

News of the invitation prompted much speculation about Modi’s foreign policy vector. During the campaign, he attacked the Congress-led government for maintaining high-level contact with Pakistan despite the clashes on the border in Kashmir, at one point famously saying, “heads of our soldiers are cut but then their prime minister is fed chicken biryani.”

The foreign policy experts clustered around Modi are known as being relatively hawkish, and they have urged him to adopt a tougher military stance in the region. One of the advisers, former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal, urged the new leader in a recent article to “develop the necessary military sinews to pursue a more robust foreign policy, including accelerating our strategic programs and climbing down from the nuclear disarmament bandwagon.”

But others say Modi’s ambitious development agenda will require India to improve relations with its neighbors by opening markets and normalizing trade across the subcontinent’s borders.

“There are a whole lot of people who bet on Modi being a hard-liner and are catering to that,” said C. Raja Mohan, a foreign-policy analyst. “Modi is not coming in to pick a fight with Pakistan. He wants to show that he can run this country, and do whatever it takes to promote India’s regional interests. This is a good way of starting.”

A Congress spokesman praised the decision to invite Sharif, as did the state government and opposition parties in Indian-administered Kashmir.

“This is a huge gesture,” said Mahbooba Mufti, a Kashmiri opposition leader. “It is a very pleasant surprise, a very good beginning. If Modi can take some concrete steps in improving relations with Pakistan, he will be remembered in history.”

Rasul Bakhsh Rais, an analyst in Islamabad, said Sharif was serious about normalizing relations with India, which he regards as a precondition to domestic progress, “but he is cautious because of the security apparatus here.” He added that he did not expect Modi to govern as a hard-liner, despite the tough rhetoric he used in the campaign.

G. Parthasarathy, a retired diplomat who has served as India’s ambassador to Pakistan, warned against reading too much into the invitation to Sharif.

He predicted that Modi would be “very terrorism-focused” in his interactions with Pakistan and would not engage in any dialogue until India’s security concerns were addressed, in part because his “whole constituency is very tough” on Pakistan. What was more important, he said, was that he had sent a message to the region’s leaders expressing his desire to move past long-running disputes and pursue a much greater degree of economic integration.

“This has never happened before in our history, that you invite all your neighbors to your swearing-in,” Parthasarathy said. “It’s the gesture which matters at this stage.”

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