In October last year, the Prime Minister's Office was in a tizzy. The Ministry of External Affairs as well as the security establishment was keen that PM Manmohan Singh attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in November.
A highly placed official had then said, "The PM is keen too. We believe leverage can only come through engagement with Mahinda Rajpaksa. The problem are the parties from Tamil Nadu, as well as some senior ministers from the state, who fear for their electoral fortunes. Let us see if the Dr Singh succumbs or stays on course." The PM succumbed to pressure, did not go for the meet, and instead sent External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid.
Contrast this with how Narendra Modi has acted, even before taking oath. He decided he wanted SAARC leaders to be a part of Monday's ceremony, passed on instructions, and the MEA implemented it. Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa expressed her unhappiness at President Rajpaksa being invited. While Modi is known to have good personal ties with her and could do with AIADMK support in the Rajya Sabha, he paid no heed. Neither did complaints by NDA ally Vaiko make Modi budge. He established a clear line - no one would be allowed to exercise veto on foreign policy, and the PM would remain the centre of decision-making.
The decisiveness was also in play with the invitation to Pakistan PM, Nawaz Sharif. If it was southern parties who would have an issue with Sri Lanka's presence, Modi's own support base - including the RSS - could have frowned upon such a move, especially since it came after a campaign marked by belligerence against Islamabad. But not only did Modi not let such calculations deter him, he also ensured that hard line elements of the Sangh even welcomed the move.
The last time PM Singh asserted his authority on matters relates to foreign policy was during the nuclear deal. But the Modi era will be marked by the clear dominance of the PM on external relations. With his invitation, Modi has already sent a message to his party, his allies, states, Delhi's bureaucracy, and the region at large that he is the man in charge, the man who would take the final call.