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Star on Indian Subcontinent’s Firmament Changes: Neighborhood Body Language Friendlier

Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has scored some immediate public relations wins by unexpectedly reaching out to the leaders of India’s neighboring states in the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a press conference. (Photo: Bharat N Khokhani via Wikimedia)

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Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has scored some immediate public relations wins by unexpectedly reaching out to the leaders of India’s neighboring states in the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation.

Terror, Terror and Terror is what topped Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda on Tuesday, in his first one-to-one meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawab Sharif, even as 7 billion pairs of eyes watched their body language, keeping close tabs on the exact wording from each side as a new government in India hinted at a “relationship” future that is likely to mark the decade ahead. The Indian monsoon hits the subcontinent on June 1 every year, and following the heat and dust of the most bitter election campaign in the last 50 years, this week was as though the people of this entire region were waiting for a soothing shower.

Yes, the world last week witnessed a right-wing leader win a massive mandate and become India’s 15th Prime Minister, following a year-long campaign spitting fire and brimstone against Pakistan and Bangladesh, against secularism and non-Hindus, against dynastic politics and crony capitalism. The rhetoric raised the boogie of a dictatorship in the offing, warnings of massive Hindu-Muslim friction and questions on unknown foreign and economic policy perspectives. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in opposition to India’s GOP, the Indian National Congress Party, this summer won the 2014 general elections with 282 seats in a House of 543 seats, to become the majority party in the Indian parliament. The popular verdict and two-thirds majority without any alliance, gave the BJP the confidence to cut a path very different from even its own past.

It was not any domestic issue that the Modi government, sworn in on Monday evening, dealt with on the first day in office. Taking even the all-knowing world media by surprise, the Modi government invited all the heads of neighboring countries to Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, a first for India. These seven countries are members of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), a grouping that is frayed by many issues of contention and that often accuses India of playing Big Brother Bully in the subcontinent. While all these countries have had long-standing relationships with the erstwhile Congress regime that has followed different kinds of appeasement policies for decades, none of them has had more than a passing acquaintance with the resurgent BJP and its new-age leader Narendra Modi. Curiosity won out, and despite all past bitterness, every SAARC country leader accepted the new Indian government’s invite to come and be a guest at Modi’s swearing-in. It was as if Modi was telling the world, “Come and see, I am not the ogre I am made out to be.” And overnight, India’s image became that of a strong Big Brother, and a kind of acceptance, without much hue and cry, ensued.

India showed off its democracy in the peaceful transition of power. “All the countries’ leaders who came represented democracies,” India’s Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh said at Tuesday’s media briefing, and analysts described it as “celebration of democracy.” In a very real way, it was not the United States demonstrating to this part of the strife-torn world what democracy means, it was India.

The new government played host to perfection, President of India Pranab Mukherjee, a veteran Congress leader, graciously welcoming everyone on neutral ground and at the high tea that followed the swearing-in. Having laid out the red carpet, Day One in office, Modi and his External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj spent Tuesday meeting all these foreign visitors from the neighborhood, which also included the president of Mauritius.

Sushama Swaraj, a senior BJP parliamentarian, had been at loggerheads with the party on the elevation of Modi to the prime ministerial post. While the results proved that Indians, like Americans, wanted the name of the CEO before the campaign, Swaraj today became India’s first woman external affairs minister. The second surprise on the foreign policy front came with General V. K. Singh, India’s former chief of armed forces, being named junior minister for external affairs. This could mean greater military involvement in peace-keeping and associated activities in the neighborhood, analysts say. The Narendra Modi cabinet has the highest number of women ministers of any cabinet, seven out of 43 or 25 percent representation in the ministry. The prime minister has kept the atomic energy and space portfolios with himself. The first domestic policy discussion centered around foreign direct investment.

The meeting with outgoing President Hamid Karazai of Afghanistan began Prime Minister Modi’s day. Karazai, often described by analysts as “India’s man”- as opposed to being pro-Pakistan – has for long been a portage of the Congress government in India. He has facilitated considerable Indian influence in Afghanistan. India, through what it calls its “soft power,” has helped Afghanistan through several democratic election processes. It is also involved in training Afghan police and security forces and supplies equipment through Russia to these forces, lest Pakistan accuse it of arming Afghans. India pays Russia as part of its assistance to Afghanistan and is expected to have greater financial and security involvement in that country following the US-NATO troop step-down.

Many feared that if a stridently pro-Hindu government took office in India, fundamentalist Muslim forces in the neighborhood would become actively militant. True to such predictions, even as India’s Election Commission announced the massive BJP victory on 16 May, the Indian consulate in Herat was attacked by militants. The attack was thwarted. In his May 27 meeting, Prime Minister Modi thanked Karzai, but for India, the most important information Karazai shared was that the attackers were the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. He also told the Indian media that Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader long on the US hit list, is hiding in Pakistan’s Quetta. The Taliban has vowed to return to Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama’s midnight visit to troops at Bagram on May 25th only strengthened the belief that the United States would soon be gone from this theatre, especially after the media reported, “The president now has to decide whether any US troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, with the limited mission of supporting Afghan forces and battling terrorists. Any such residual force is contingent on agreement from the next Afghan president.”

A White House communiqué delivered after the swearing-in said, “As the president (Obama) and prime minister (Modi) agreed in their call after the election, the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States, share a deep bond and commitment to promoting economic opportunity, freedom and security for our people and around the world.” The Modi-led government’s Afghan policy will be keenly watched.

With Karzai alleging Pakistan-based terror groups had a hand in the Herat attack, the focus is on terror. Of course, Modi and his image-makers ensured more than a warm handshake between Modi and Sharif, buckets of sentimentality: Sharif’s mother watched Modi’s mother blessing him, as a teary-eyed Sharif told Modi at the swearing-in garden party – and this going viral instantly, set the tone for the 27 May Sharif statement after the one-on-one meeting. “I urge that we should change from confrontation to cooperation and not engage in accusations and counter-accusations.” Sharif added, “We owe it to our people to overcome the legacy of mistrust and distrust.” Modi’s message in the 50-minute long meeting was: We have opened the road, despite this week’s violation of the ceasefire line along India’s border with Pakistan, now it is for you Pakistan (and Afghanistan and Bangladesh) to take it.

With Bangladesh, land boundaries and the Teesta River water dispute are pending issues, although this is the first country Modi is likely to visit as PM, according to the media. Solutions to most issues have been worked out on paper between the two countries, including insurgency and terrorism from Bangladesh that affects India, and Modi can claim credit for immediate success here.

However, the invite from Nepal will possibly carry greater weight. Modi began his journey to parliament as a winning candidate from the Indian city of Varanasi, at the temple of the Hindu deity Shiva. Kathmandu is the seat of Pashupatinath, one of the biggest and most-venerated Shiva temples in the world, and a visit will only strengthen Modi’s moral force. Nepal is also the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, and Modi is projecting himself as a “Man of Peace,” as Maryam Sharif, the Pakistani PM’s daughter has tweeted. A visit to Nepal will impress not only the lower rungs of India’s caste hierarchy (the Dalits), who call themselves Buddhists, but will impact countries like Myanmar and Japan. The connection between peace and the Buddha cannot be ignored in the subcontinent.

Nepal and Bhutan are two countries that stand between China and India: Building bridges here will be important for the new Indian government. The presence of Mahinda Rajapakse, Sri Lanka’s president, at the Modi swearing-in, saw all of Modi’s allies in the southern state of Tamilnadu absent from the ceremony, and sparked protests from Tamil-speaking Indians. Will the Modi government be able to push for the 13th Amendment to the Lankan constitution, which gives provincial councils to the Tamils and recognition of Tamil as an official language in that country, is a question Tamils in Australia and Canada are also asking. China’s influence over the Rajapakse government is great, and its presence in the Indian Ocean makes India keep a close watch on smaller countries like the Maldives and Mauritius. How Modi’s equation works out with these countries will also be watched with interest.

On his first working day as prime minister, “strongman”‘ Narendra Modi raised expectations that India will soon be able to provide regional leadership. Indo-Pakistani relations, resolution of the Kashmir dispute, borders with China and Bangladesh – all are intractable legacies of hate. If Modi is able to change the military-political history of the neighborhood, he will approach immortality. There was no mention of the Kashmir dispute this time, or nuclear capability, though the Mumbai terror attack was discussed. Modi gave foreign policy short shrift during his campaign; as prime minister, his first official thrust was at foreign policy. He did not begin with the United States, but with next-door neighbors and made a hit. From star of India, Modi has now become a star in the regional firmament; belligerent neighbors have become cautious and moved from stated positions. There is a change in body language – Sharif’s, Rajapakse’s, Modi’s; Modi himself has come off as pragmatic. No doubt, the first round goes to Modi and the last word to Sharif: “We must ‘rid’ the region of instability.”

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