AT the start of the Narendra Modi era, diplomacy, rather than domestic affairs, dominated the show, although late in the day something important was done on the domestic front, too. His compact council of ministers – totalling 45 as against the 74 that constituted the ousted  government – was sworn in late in the evening on Monday. On his first working day, however, most of Modi’s time and energy were devoted to summit diplomacy. This was the result of his own sudden initiative to invite the heads of state or government of all the members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) plus Mauritius to his government’s inauguration.

Modi’s original idea was to reach out only to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, and ask him to be by his side for the “celebration of the Indian democracy.” But he knew that the best way to ensure this was to invite him together with others heading the governments in the region. Despite a number of difficulties, including differences between Sharif and the Pakistan Army and an attack on the Indian consulate at Herat in Afghanistan, Sharif decided to come. His brother and governor of Pakistani Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, had taken care to get the agreement of the Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif.

It is perhaps needless to add that although eight heads of government were in Delhi and were treated with equal respect, not only the Indian and foreign media, but also the people, in general, were all fixated on Sharif. Before leaving for home, he expressed satisfaction with the “cordial and constructive” talks with Modi and hoped that India felt the same. There was, of course, no breakthrough or even an advance in the conversation. On the contrary, Modi had underscored the problem of terrorism and stated that the India-Pakistan relations could not improve until terrorism from Pakistan’s territory and the territory under its control was ended, and masterminds of the savage terrorist attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008, were punished. The Indian side also demanded that Pakistan should cease sheltering India’s most wanted, Dawood Ibrahim, responsible for the massacre during the serial blasts in Mumbai in March 1993. When during the election campaign Modi had raised this demand, Pakistan’s interior minister had rebuked him rudely.

Remarkably, Sharif evaded this issue, made a brief reference to the “core issue” of Kashmir, but expressed satisfaction that the ice had been broken” and the roadmap for further talks would be prepared by the foreign secretaries of the two countries. India broadly agreed, but there was a significant difference of nuance in the statements of the two sides. Sharif, who delayed his meeting with the media until after the Indian foreign secretary, Sujatha Singh’s televised press briefing, said categorically that the two foreign secretaries would “meet soon.” Singh declared that they would be “in touch.” There was, however, no ill-will on either side.

More on this subject presently, but something needs to be said first on the composition of  Modi’s ministerial team. He has combined experience with youth. Veterans like Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj (who was basically a dissident), Venkaiah Naidu, Ravi Shankar Prasad and others have been assigned the main portfolios. The Prime Minister has received well-merited appreciation for giving women one-fifth representation in the cabinet.

The widespread concern over the allocation of both finance and defence to Jaitley has been dissipated after his declaration that he is holding “additional charge” of defence only “temporarily.” The shorter this period, the better.

Reverting to the brisk diplomatic activity, it must be reported that the terrorism issue acquired greater salience when the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, told an Indian TV channel that the ghastly assault was the handiwork of the Pakistan-backed Taliban controlled by the ISI, the notorious Pakistani intelligence agency.

Next to Sharif, the foreign dignitary that attracted attention was President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka.  There was great opposition to an invitation to him in Tamil Nadu. In their official talks, Modi told Rajapaksa to lose no further time in implementing the long-delayed 13th amendment to the Lankan constitution that provides for devolution of powers to the Tamil minority.

A brief word now on a fine domestic decision the Modi government took late on Tuesday evening. For three years, the Manmohan Singh government had dragged its feet on the Supreme Court’s directive to appoint a Special Investigating Team (SIT), to expose those who have stashed black money in foreign tax havens. The Modi government set it up on day one.

Unfortunately, a junior minister in the Prime Minister’s Office simultaneously caused a sharp and potentially explosive  row with the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, by indicating that the central government would repeal Article 370 that gives the sensitive state a special status. During six years of his rule (1998-2004), Atal Behari Vajpayee had put this item on the BJP agenda in cold storage.

Inder Malhotra

Free Press Journal