India’s new PM holds talks with Pakistani rival
NEW DELHI: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi held landmark talks with his Pakistani counterpart and announced his new cabinet on Tuesday, in a high-energy start to his term in office.
The morning after Modi and his slimmed-down team of ministers were sworn in, the right-wing leader hosted Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bid to ease tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
The two leaders shook hands and smiled for the cameras on the steps of a government building in central New Delhi before heading inside for almost an hour-long meeting that ran over its allotted time.
Sharif was one of six regional leaders who attended the lavish inauguration on Monday evening for Modi, a former tea boy who has been elected leader of the world’s largest democracy with the strongest mandate for 30 years.
Modi has an image as a hard-liner, even within his own Hindu nationalist party, and is regarded with deep suspicion by many in Pakistan after deadly anti-Muslim riots erupted in his western fiefdom a decade ago.
But in a surprise move that disarmed many of his critics, Modi decided last week to invite Sharif to his inauguration and then to join him for talks in a significant olive branch to India’s Muslim neighbor.
“Let us together dream of a strong, developed and inclusive India that actively engages with the global community to strengthen the cause of world peace and development,” Modi said as he was sworn in on Monday.
It is the first time an Indian prime minister has hosted a Pakistani leader for official talks in Delhi since the rupture in relations that followed the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people.
The attacks were blamed on Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistani militant group which is now accused of being behind an attack by gunmen last week on an Indian diplomatic mission in western Afghanistan.
Afghan President Karzai, who also met Modi on Tuesday, pointed the finger at LeT for last week’s attack in Herat, but a man claiming to be a spokesman for the group denied this in a call to AFP’s office in Kashmir.
Modi was likely to have raised trade between India and Pakistan in his talks with Sharif, as well as security concerns over anti-India groups operating from Pakistani territory, analysts say.
The talks came hours after Modi put an end to days of speculation and announced his cabinet, with Sushma Swaraj, the most senior woman of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), named as foreign minister.
Arun Jaitley, a 61-year-old lawyer, emerged as the most powerful man after Modi with the critical finance and defense portfolios, while BJP president Rajnath Singh is the new home affairs minister.
“I am conscious of the fact that I am taking over at a challenging time, particularly when there is a need to restore confidence in the Indian economy,” Jaitley told reporters in New Delhi.
“The challenges are very obvious. We have to restore back the pace of growth, contain inflation, and obviously concentrate on fiscal consolidation itself,” he said in his first comments since taking the job.
Modi named a government of 46 members including himself — 25 fewer than in the outgoing government headed by the left-leaning Congress party.
The smaller team is part of a drive to speed up decision-making and slash India’s notorious bureaucracy, blamed in part for a slowdown in the economy which is now growing at its lowest rate in a decade.
Television channels reported Modi was likely to chair his first formal cabinet meeting on Tuesday evening in another signal of his desire to promptly set out clear targets for his government.
In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Sharif said Modi’s arrival in power after a landslide election victory represented a great opportunity for the neighbors, which have fought three wars since independence.
“We have a historic moment to open a new chapter. The new government under Modi has a strong mandate and I look forward to picking up the relationship from where I and Vajpayee left it in 1999,” he told the newspaper in comments published Tuesday.
Sharif was referring to the threads of a failed peace process which went on during his second term in office — coinciding with the last time Modi’s BJP was in power in India.
In 1999, then-Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee rode a bus to the Pakistani city of Lahore to sign an accord with Sharif, but three months later the neighbors nearly went to war over the disputed region of Kashmir.