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Modi and Sharif mean business, quite literally

The PM-designate has done well in moving fast to woo the south Asian neighbour he so relentlessly bashed in his march to an unprecedented electoral victory. But one would desist from calling it a bold new beginning.

india Updated: May 25, 2014 13:54 IST
Vinod Sharma
A-combination-picture-of-Pakistan-PM-Nawaz-Sharif-and-Indian-PM-designate-Narendra-Modi-Agency
A-combination-picture-of-Pakistan-PM-Nawaz-Sharif-and-Indian-PM-designate-Narendra-Modi-Agency

Audacious diplomacy! That's the description that best fits Narendra Modi's invite to Nawaz Sharif and the latter's acceptance of it to attend the Indian Premier's swearing-in ceremony on Monday. The PM-designate has done well in moving fast to woo the south Asian neighbour he so relentlessly bashed in his march to an unprecedented electoral victory.

But one would desist from calling it a bold new beginning, given the torturous and hazardous hiatus that separated New Delhi and Islamabad. AB Vajpayee dared travel that distance in a bus across Wagah in 1999. But what followed was the Kargil War Sharif failed to prevent and had problems living down in his second tenure that ended in a coup.

Read: Pak PM's visit raises hopes for better cricket ties

Yet Vajpayee's initiative was a historic first requiring replication in our frustrating quest for peace. Sharif's presence at Modi's swearing-in would match its symbolism, if not the substance of the Lahore Pact the Pakistani Army buried under Kargil's debris of destruction.

Modi's rivals are recalling his poll-time rhetoric to question his overture to Pakistan. They needn't be blamed, for that's the nature of competitive politics. Cross-border terror was the BJP's cannon fodder to bolster religious-military nationalism with its communally divisive underpinnings.

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But big moments change men. It's good if Modi realises that he isn't the PM of Hindu India; that he's the Hindu PM of a country of multiple faiths, cultures and sub-nationalities.

India is a collage of religious persuasions practised or predominant in our neighbourhood. The sub-continent boasts of Buddhist Sri Lanka and Bhutan, a Hindu Nepal and Muslim Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives and Afghanistan. They are all on Modi's list of invitees as SAARC member-states.

Read: Pak frees 59 Indian prisoners ahead of Sharif's visit to Delhi

How then could India that embodies south Asia not be at peace with its near neighbours? More so when it has the economic potential to improve the lives of not just its own people but those of the wider south Asian citizenry?

The idea apparently isn't lost on Modi, who prides himself in being business-friendly. That actually is his meeting ground with Sharif, who belongs to a leading industrial family of Pakistan. Like his Indian host, he too made his mark in politics as the CM of the industrious Pakistani province of Punjab.

Sharif's, in fact, is a bigger gambit in identifying so early with the new-look Delhi controlled by a leader about whom questions abound back home. His aggressive rhetoric has earned Modi the image of an adventurist in Pakistan. There are as many questions about the 2002 Gujarat riots and his approach to Muslims.

Read:Modi swearing-in to have 5-star welcome for foreign guests

Modi would be PM before his scheduled May 27 meeting with Sharif. The interaction would be watched for its bilateral value. But of greater import for future dialogue would be their search for a personal chemistry of the kind Vajpayee cultivated with Sharif and even Gen Pervez Musharraf.

Statecraft affords little room for compassion or generosity. But as he engages with his next-door guest, Modi, while forcefully putting across Indian concerns, would have to factor in Sharif's limitations in a relationship controlled at his end by the Pak army.

Economies don't prosper in tensed up neighbourhoods. That presents a possibility of convergence of interests of the two leaders to help fulfil their promises of a quality life to their electorates. Towards that end, they need to build an equation of 'privately verifiable' trust.