In a major diplomatic signal to the region as well as to the global community, India’s prime minister-designate Narendra Modi, who surprised the world with his election victory and is set to head the country’s next government, has invited heads of all the SAARC countries, including Pakistan, for his oath-taking ceremony May 26.
“The letters were sent this afternoon. Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh wrote to her SAARC counterparts inviting their leaders to the swearing in on Monday,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.
Akbaruddin said in a statement later that the ministry has been holding “informal consultations” with SAARC members on the matter and hoped to have their responses in the next couple of days.
“This is for us a first of sorts because this is the first time that India has invited all SAARC members to attend a swearing-in ceremony of the prime minister,” he said.
SAARC comprises, besides India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives, Bhutan and Afghanistan.
However, all eyes are on Pakistan to see if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will accept the unexpected invitation.
Asked if Sharif, who came to power last year, would attend the ceremony, Pakistani diplomatic sources said the invite has been received, but could not say as yet if their prime minister would be attending.
Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said Modi’s move to invite Sharif and other SAARC leaders was “excellent”. On Twitter, Abdullah expressed the hope that it would be the beginning of sustained talks between India and Pakistan.
Bangladesh parliament Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury will represent her country at the swearing-in ceremony. This was confirmed by Bangladesh State Minister for Foreign Affairs M. Shahriar Alam to bdnews24.com. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has to go to Tokyo May 24 on an official visit that will run through to May 28.
Former envoy Sheel Kant Sharma, who has served as SAARC secretary general, said it was a “fantastic move” by Modi to give the regional grouping such importance. Sharma told IANS: “It is a very, very welcome move. It is a clear message that he plans to begin with the region.”
Former envoy Hardeep Singh Puri, who has joined the BJP, told IANS: “It is a brilliant initiative, well considered. SAARC is home to 1.6 billion people, we share common developmental challenges. It is one of the least integrated sub-regions in the world, the connectivity is minimal.”
He said if the region stays united, the potential was immense. “It is a signal from the PM-elect to the SAARC heads of government and state that we have common vital interests in the stability and prosperity of the region and would be willing to talk to each other for the development and prosperity of SAARC.”
Modi has been greeted by many world leaders, from US President Barack Obama to British Prime Minister David Cameron, and by neighbours Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
An avid tweeter, with more than four million followers, Modi, who has great communication skills, has taken to Twitter diplomacy to respond to some of the leaders and inform his followers about the world leaders who have greeted him.
Modi will take oath as India’s 14th prime minister at the ceremony that is expected to be attended by over 3,000 invited guests and will be telecast live. The swearing-in ceremony would be held in the open forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace.