South Asian leaders at Indian high table

Swearing_in_1915684fAs eight leaders from SAARC and beyond took the front row at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in on Monday, there was a rare feel-good atmosphere in a tense region that is home to one-fourth of the world’s people.

Apart from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan and other SAARC leaders and representatives, Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam of Mauritius was present. The new Indian Prime Minister’s speed diplomacy, and the readiness with which his invitation was accepted,, has boosted India’s centrality to the region.

Despite the known unknowns about his foreign policy, it has also given rise to huge expectations across South Asia — the enchanting mood at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Monday evening belied the troubled relations that India has with most of its neighbours. Less than a year ago Mr. Sharif invited former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to his swearing-in, but assailed by the BJP and his own party for being too soft on Pakistan, Dr. Singh did not go.Mr. Sharif is similarly criticised at home for being soft on India. But there he was on Monday evening , witnessing the inauguration of a leader known across Wagah as a Hindu fundamentalist.

“I am carrying a message of peace. Dialogue is the only solution,” Mr. Sharif said as he arrived in Delhi.

On Tuesday, Mr. Modi will hold bilateral discussions with Mr. Sharif, as he will with the other SAARC leaders and the Mauritian Prime Minister. The Modi-Sharif interaction will be brief, but will provide the first indication of the new government’s thinking on Pakistan. From the BJP manifesto, it appears that the new government will focus on economic ties in all its foreign relations.

More immediately, there is the challenge in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military drawdown threatens to worsen the regional security situation, and will impact on ties with Pakistan, which resents India-Afghan ties.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a statement of his own by blaming the Pakistan-based LeT for the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa will hope that the BJP’s independence of Tamil Nadu allies will make New Delhi more supportive of his regime. India values ties with Sri Lanka but Colombo must make room for political aspirations of the minority Tamils. Again, it is the bilateral with Mr. Rajapaksa that will give an indication of whether Mr. Modi will hew to the old line. Bangladesh, which Mr. Modi baited during his campaign, must have its reservations but has put them aside hoping for a fast implementation of the outstanding Teesta river deal.

Nepal, which sees China as an equally important neighbour, will hope for a supportive but non-interfering India.