Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to attend Narendra Modi’s inauguration on Monday has raised hope of a new thaw in relations between the two South Asian nations. It is the first time since the two countries won independence in 1947 that a prime minister from one country will attend such a ceremony in the other.
Mr. Modi has dramatically altered India's swearing-in ceremony, which has never been attended by foreign leaders. In addition to Mr. Sharif, he invited the presidents of eight south Asian countries, including Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, in what is seen domestically as a bold step toward a policy of regional engagement. Modi and Sharif will have a bilateral meeting after the inauguration.
Several of Modi’s critics in India welcomed the move. Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir, said in a Twitter post: “Very glad to hear Pak PM has accepted invite, shows that he can prevail over forces inimical to good relations with India. I hope this will mark a new beginning in ties between our two countries.”
The right men for a thaw
Modi is seen a strong leader who is less vulnerable to charges of weakness. He won a landslide victory in the national election, which gave him a powerful mandate as prime minister and the leeway to reach out to Pakistan, with whom India has fought three wars. Meanwhile, Sharif is keen to improve ties with India. He was one of the first leaders who called Modi after election results to congratulate him on his victory, and invited him to Pakistan.
Sharif has cited his good relationship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's last prime minister under the BJP, as a reason for hope and optimism. During Sharif's second term in power in 1999, Vajpayee visited Pakistan to sign a peace accord. But the talks failed few months later, when the Pakistani Army launched an offensive in Kargil region in Kashmir. Sharif was later overthrown in a military coup.
“Nawaz Sharif is still having serious problems with the Pakistan Army. He already faced coup twice as prime minister before. Once in 1993 from then General Abdul Waheed Kakar and in 1999 from General Pervez Musharraf,” says G. Parthasarathy, a retired diplomat who served as India’s ambassador to Pakistan. “He will be very careful while dealing with India without having the [Pakistan] Army on board.”
The invitation posed a dilemma for Sharif because many in Pakistan see Modi as a hard-line Hindu nationalist who harbors sectarian prejudices. Extremist groups called on Sharif to refuse the invitation, but after two days of deliberations, he decided to attend.
“Nawaz Sharif is the best guy in the town to talk to India,” said Syed Tariq Peerzada, an Islamabad-based strategic affairs expert. “But every step has to be calculated before a decision is being taken.” Speaking during a panel discussion on the Indian TV station NDTV, he said Modi’s hawkish reputation may give him more leeway to resolve issues such as Kashmir, since his right-wing credentials are well established.
Others, however, believes that economic relations are likely to dominate Modi’s foreign policy agenda. “What I am sure of is that he [Modi] will focus more on business ties and will take a tougher stand on terrorism emanating from Pakistan than his predecessors,” says Mr. Parthasarathy.
Bilateral ties between the two countries suffered badly after the 2008 terrorist attack in the Indian city of Mumbai, when 166 people were killed in a shooting spree by the Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba. In the past two years the two sides have improved trade links and many are hoping that political improvement can follow.
But trade ties are still far below their potential: Today's trade stands at $2.7 billion, a small portion of the potential $40 billion that economists calculate could be achieved.
For the moment all eyes are on the oath ceremony on Monday, which is expected to be attended by more than 3,000 invited guests and will be broadcast live. All roads leading to the ceremony will be barricaded on Monday.
Unprecedented security arrangements will be in place. About 6,000 security personnel and commandos will be deployed to guard guests and foreign dignitaries who will be present at the presidential palace on Monday to attend the open-air oath-taking ceremony. The Indian Air Force will conduct air surveillance during the ceremony.