PM Modi’s swearing-in ceremony: Leaving Pakistan out of the picture : The Tribune India

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PM Modi’s swearing-in ceremony: Leaving Pakistan out of the picture

The shift from 2014 to 2024 is stark. Not inviting Pakistan for the oath-taking ceremony of Narendra Modi as PM for the third term amid India’s neighbourhood outreach is a sign of the freeze in ties

PM Modi’s swearing-in ceremony: Leaving Pakistan out of the picture

Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in New Delhi in May 2014. New Delhi has chosen to give the cold shoulder to Islamabad by not sending an invite when PM Modi takes oath for his third term in office. PTI

Ajay Banerjee

Ten years ago, when Narendra Modi took oath as Prime Minister on the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan on May 26, 2014, succeeding Manmohan Singh, in attendance was Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, along with six other South Asian leaders. The invitation to Sharif became a talking point in diplomatic circles, raising hopes of a new start in the otherwise fractured bilateral relations. When Modi gets sworn in as the Prime Minister for his third term on Sunday evening, top political leaders of neighbouring countries would again be present, but a notable omission would be that of a leader from Pakistan.

Not inviting Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, stems from the diplomatic freeze in bilateral relations. An invite had seemed unlikely, if not impossible, but it was ruled out amid the prevailing icy relations.

The shift from 2014 to 2024 is stark. Ten years on, bilateral ties are not in a ‘working mode’ as they were in 2014. Conversely, relations are not as bad as they were in May 2019, when sequential events in February that year meant an invite to Pakistan was ruled out when Prime Minister Modi took oath for his second term.

The abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution in August 2019 changed the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Since then, ties with Pakistan have been acrimonious, with no bilateral political contact.

Neighbourhood first, Maldives included

India has a ‘neighbourhood first’ policy and the oath-taking ceremony will be witnessed by top leaders from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Mauritius and Seychelles. Even Maldives, that has had a few public tiffs with India, has been invited. Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu will head to India for the oath-taking ceremony on what will be his first visit since taking over in November last year.

Seen as pro-China, Muizzu had travelled to Turkiye first and to China for his first state visit in January. Within hours of taking over in November last year, Muizzu had demanded the removal of Indian military personnel from his country, straining bilateral ties. He posted on X, “I look forward to working together to advance our shared interests in pursuit of shared prosperity and stability for our two countries.”

Sharat Sabharwal, the former Indian Ambassador to Pakistan (2009-2013), says there is nothing strange in Pakistan not getting invited for the swearing-in. “As of now, it’s not an easy situation. There are hardened positions on both sides.”

Sabharwal, who was appointed Ambassador just months after the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai that left 166 dead, says, “In 2014, the India-Pak relationship was relatively stable as a result of the dialogue conducted in 2011-12 following the Mumbai attacks.”

TCA Raghavan, Ambassador to Pakistan from 2013 to 2015, agrees that 2014 and 2024 are “vastly different scenarios; an invite to Pakistan for the swearing-in ceremony would be unrealistic and even bizarre at this stage as there is a total freeze in bilateral relations”.

In July 2018, Prime Minister Modi had called up cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan to congratulate him on his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), winning the most seats in the general elections.

Then came the events of February 2019 — a terror attack in Pulwama killed 44 troopers of the CRPF; some 10 days later, Indian Air Force jets bombed a terror camp at Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The next day, an air duel ensued with Pakistan in which Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s plane was hit and he parachuted down in Pakistan.

Despite the muscle-flexing by both sides, just three months later, in May 2019, Imran Khan rang up Prime Minister Modi to congratulate him on winning a second term in office.

Dr Ashok Behuria, coordinator of the South Asia Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, says, “The inertia of post-Pulwama-Balakot and downscaling of diplomatic contacts continues till date.”

Raghavan compares 2014 with 2024 and says, “As of now, we have a ban on trade between the two sides, High Commissioners of either side are not in place, J&K cross-border confidence-building measures are not there and political contact is missing.”

Sabharwal avers, “We have a problem on both sides. The Pakistan side has an unreasonable stand, asking India to reverse the abrogation of Article 370 and restore statehood to Jammu and Kashmir and till then, talks cannot happen.”

India’s stance that talks and terror cannot go together has kind of “gelled, but has constrained the government”, adds Sabharwal, who also served as India’s Deputy High Commissioner in Islamabad from 1995-1999.

Time for policy shift

A period of 35 months from September 2016 to August 2019 saw events changing the course of India-Pakistan ties. In September 2016, the Indian Army retaliated following a militant attack on its camp at Uri by carrying out surgical strikes at multiple locations across the Line of Control. Within the forces, it’s a known fact that surgical strikes across the LoC were carried out in the past, too, but never acknowledged publicly. Then came the February 2019 events, followed by the abrogation of Article 370.

A serving Indian Army officer says the Pakistan army is capable of giving any spin to its narrative of victory in military actions, but “doing away with Article 370 and its impact on J&K would take a while to be absorbed by the army, the Pakistani politicians and its people, who have been given the impression that Kashmir can be taken”.

A notable development, though, has been Nawaz Sharif’s admission of violating the Lahore pact in context of the Kargil conflict.

Former Ambassador to Pakistan Satinder Lambah, in his book ‘In Pursuit of Peace: India-Pakistan Relations Under Six Prime Ministers’, published after his death, narrates the back channel talks during Manmohan Singh’s tenure as Prime Minister. He lists three key points on J&K — there cannot be any redrawing of borders, no joint sovereignty and the LoC has to be respected like a normal border between the two countries.

The Modi government made its own attempts at mending ties. The Prime Minister made an unannounced visit to Lahore on December 25, 2015, to meet Nawaz Sharif. In April 2016, just months after the attack on the Pathankot airbase, an extraordinary Track-2 event was hosted in Delhi where six former Pakistani High Commissioners to India and nine former Indian High Commissioners to Pakistan sat down for the first time to take stock of bilateral relations.

The 15 former envoys had dinner at Hyderabad House, the foreign ministry’s venue for state banquets, and met National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. In 2017, an Indian industrialist, known to the Sharifs, was despatched with a message to Islamabad.

Ambassador Raghavan says “it is time for a shift in policy; it has to be done gradually and opportunities will arise”. Pakistan, he adds, would be keen, too, but the initiative has to come from India.

Dr Behuria concurs: “The new government should not avoid any diplomatic interaction aimed at normalising relations with Pakistan. However, realism demands that while we draw our red lines, we need to invest our diplomatic capital in the right way.”

With ties in such a freeze, Ambassador Sabharwal says the way forward would be taking steps like restoring the High Commissioners. “Pakistan has stopped trade with India, it should resume it. Pakistan has shown no flexibility. Their Ministry of Foreign Affairs says create a conducive environment, but statements are rhetorical and anti-India,” he adds.

Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch on Saturday said, “Since the new government hasn’t officially been sworn in, it is premature to talk about congratulating the Indian Prime Minister.” Baloch added that Islamabad desired cordial and cooperative ties with all its neighbours, including India, and wants to resolve disputes through talks.

Attari-Wagah trade

A mention of Pakistan during the Lok Sabha electioneering is usually in a negative connotation. However, during the last two phases of electioneering — when the poll battle shifted to Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh — BJP leaders changed tack and mentioned the need to have trade via the Wagah-Attari land route.

The Baddi-Nalagarh belt in Himachal Pradesh has several ‘100 per cent export-oriented units’, but cannot export to Pakistan using the land border that is just 250 km west of Baddi. The issue of trade ties with Pakistan become a central point in electoral campaigning in Punjab. Several candidates, including former Indian Ambassador to US and contestant from the Amritsar seat Taranjit Singh Sandhu, promised resumption of India-Pakistan trade via the Attari-Wagah land route.

The Shiromani Akali Dal’s manifesto also mentioned the issue. SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal questioned why trade with Pakistan could be allowed through Gujarat ports, but not through Punjab’s road network.

Post NDA’s victory, Punjab BJP president Sunil Jakhar said: “We would like trade links to be opened with Pakistan. Punjab has a geographical advantage. It will also improve people-to-people ties.” Jakhar, who hails from Abohar, located just 20 km from the India-Pakistan border, however, warned that “trade cannot be at the cost of national security and national pride. These things have to be factored in”.

After the Pulwama terror attack, India imposed 200 per cent duty on imports from Pakistan, making business unviable. Pakistan put an end to trade with India after the abrogation of Article 370. Trade activities are carried out through the UAE, raising costs. Unofficial estimates peg the trade at $3 billion. Indian firms export tyres, processed food, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Imported items include garments, spices and some machinery items used in small-scale manufacturing, with a decisive balance of trade favouring India.

Pakistan has remained indecisive on resumption of trade with India. In March, its Foreign Minister, Ishaq Dar, announced that the government was “seriously considering” resuming trade ties with India. Days later, Foreign Office spokesperson Baloch contradicted him, saying no such plan was under discussion.

#Narendra Modi #Nawaz Sharif #Pakistan

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