Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi’s surprise invitation to the leaders of India’s neighbours to attend his swearing-in ceremony on May 26 has the makings of a shock and awe tactic with three messages: the first to Pakistan, the second to the region and the third for domestic consumption. While dressed up as an outreach to all SAARC leaders, the invitation was clearly meant primarily for Prime Minister NawazSharif of Pakistan. To the extent that during his election campaign Mr. Modi’s references to Pakistan were all linked to cross-border terrorism, the invitation is rightly seen as an olive branch to that country. Less apparently, the invitation to witness Mr. Modi’s anointment is an assertion that Pakistan now has to deal with a powerful new leader in New Delhi with a decisive mandate, and that the onus is now on Pakistan to show that it wants friendly ties. The invitation has put Mr. Sharif in an awkward positioneven though he and an earlier Prime Minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party made bilateral relations look easy for a while. Mr. Modi’s image across the border is, however, different from that of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s; and, as well as being weighed down by anti-India hawks within his own party and Cabinet, the Pakistani leader, who has many a time articulated a vision of friendly ties with India, has an unsupportive and mostly hostile security establishment breathing down his neck. There are indications that Mr. Sharif might find a way out of this delicate corner by sending a representative. In any case, Mr. Modi and the new dispensation in Delhi would be better served avoiding conclusive judgments about Pakistan or Mr. Sharif on the basis of the response. Hopefully, they will find more nuanced ways of coming to grips with what is a layered, complex and difficult relationship.
The second clear message is to South Asia and the larger region, including China, that under the new leadership India intends to be proactively engaged with the region, and in contrast to the United Progressive Alliance government, will not let the initiative slip from New Delhi’s hands, whether in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Nepal. The third message is meant for regional parties in Tamil Nadu and in West Bengal that, allies or not, they can no longer dictate terms on foreign policy.Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the first to understand this; such a New Delhi-Tamil Nadu equation is exactly what he wants, and he readily accepted the invitation. The Ministry of External Affairs, which too appears to have been taken by surprise by Mr. Modi’s invitation, will need to adjust to the reality that the control desk of India’s foreign policy will be located in the new, more powerful Prime Minister’s Office.