Mr. Modi’s decision to invite regional leaders to swearing-in surprises RSS hardliners

Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi has invited the heads of the governments of all South Asian states to attend his swearing-in on Monday, in a gesture, which diplomats and experts said was without precedent. Though foreign envoys stationed in New Delhi have attended past swearings-in, Ministry of External Affairs sources said, no world leader has been invited to attend what has traditionally been seen as a domestic event.

The move startled regional diplomats-but also caused surprise in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which was not consulted on the decision, Bharatiya Janata Party sources said.

Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, the Ministry of External Affairs said, despatched formal invitations on Wednesday afternoon to the Presidents or Prime Ministers of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s President, has accepted the invitation but there was no immediate word on which other leaders would attend.

Mr. Modi’s surprise outreach, an advisor present at the meeting said, was intended to allay regional fears that his rise to power would herald a new hawkishness in Indian foreign policy. The Prime Minister-elect had ruffled feathers in Bangladesh by threatening to expel migrants from India’s north-east, while Sri Lanka was concerned over the influence ethnic nationalists in Tamil Nadu might have over his foreign policy.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s reaction, however, will be watched the most closely in New Delhi. Mr. Sharif had congratulated Mr. Modi on his election, invited him to visit Pakistan, and called for a resumption of early bilateral dialogue on all issues, including Jammu and Kashmir. There have been doubts in India’s diplomatic establishment, though, of Mr. Sharif’s ability to deliver on his promise of peace in the face of resistance from the country’s military.

“Part of the idea”, a senior national security official present at the meeting said, “is to test whether Pakistan’s Prime Minister will able to buck military pressures by visiting New Delhi. It will be a sign of whether he is his own boss or not”.

Mr. Modi’s willingness to engage Pakistan early in his tenure surprised many, given the hard line he adopted during his election campaign. In September, Mr. Modi had lashed out at former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for holding what he called a “biryani meeting” with Mr. Sharif in New York, following the killing of Indian troops on the Line of Control. Mr. Modi demanded that Mr. Singh “call off this meeting”.

An Indian soldier was killed in fresh fighting on the Line of Control on Sunday, but there was no official reaction from Mr. Modi.

The regional invite idea, government sources said, was planned at a meeting of former national security and foreign service officials close to the Bharatiya Janata Party on Friday. Following its approval by Mr. Modi, the sources said, informal consultations with the diplomatic missions of the SAARC states in New Delhi.

Experts were divided on the wisdom of the initiative. “The rules of the game should be settled before any major diplomatic initiatives”, said Ajai Sahni, at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. “This kind of gesture seems to be a little impulsive”.

More In: National | News