Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif went to New Delhi to attend the oath-taking of the new Indian incumbent Narendra Modi, in what has been a break from tradition. Modi’s subsequent meeting with Nawaz also marked not only the fastest that an Indian Prime Minister has met with his Pakistani counterpart, but also represents the overpowering need of Modi to show himself to the world as a chief executive capable of dealing with outside powers.

As the flag-bearer of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi has to deal with Pakistan in a way that not only satisfies its Hindu extremist cadres, but also enables him to deliver on the promises of economic development that brought him the thumping electoral victory they did. He also has to show that he is capable of dealing with foreign affairs, particularly with India’s most difficult relationship, even though he brings to the office of Prime Minister only the experience of the Chief Ministership of Gujarat.

It is also worth noting that the oath-taking has started being described as an inauguration. This seems to be American influence at play. It should be noted that the American President is both head of state and head of government, and his inauguration not only takes place two months after his election, but sets in motion a day-long celebration. Prime Ministers of both India and Pakistan take over much earlier, and even though Modi came to office through a process which lasted a month, he has come to office a week after the result was declared. India’s, or even Pakistan’s, Prime Minister, is supposed to be like the British, whose ‘kissing of hands’ of the British monarch (that first audience when he or she is entrusted with forming the government) is a private affair. There are no foreign guests at this, not even diplomats, because the ceremony is not public. The idea of inviting counterparts started with Mian Nawaz inviting the Indian Prime Minister to his own oath last year. Manmohan Singh did not come, so his going represents an asymmetry in the protocol of the relationship.

At the same time, Mian Nawaz has not just shown his disdain for protocol, but also his desire for movement on Pak-India relations. It is worth noting that the motivation for this is one that Modi is supposed to understand: business. The way that India has handled the situation shows that it is trying to adjust the hopes of the US for a reduction of the threat of an Indo-Pak nuclear war, with its own desires. It is worth noting that Mian Nawaz invited only the Indian Prime Minister, but he himself has been invited as the head of a SAARC government. It shows again that, while SAARC has many purposes and aims, it remain what it was at its founding in 1985, after having been talked about since 1980, a forum for Indo-Pakistan meetings. Its expansion to include Afghanistan indicates that it has US support. The US support indicates that it sees SAARC as a potential tool against China. The US desire to contain China is one reason driving it to prop up Indian hegemony in the region, and it is one reason for a divergence with Pakistan, a firm Chinese ally, where once this had been a point of convergence, to the extent that Pakistan played a key role in the Nixon visit to China. One reason why Pakistan has befriended China, apart from their many bilateral commonalties, has been their mutual problems with India. China is India’s only neighbour not in SAARC. Thus there was no invitation to the Chinese Prime Minister to attend the oath-taking.

With all SAARC heads of government attending the swearing-in (except that of Bangladesh, on a prior trip to Japan), it is worth noting that Modi has woken up to the need for increased intra-SAARC trade. That is supposed to be the main purpose of SAARC, which had covered the British possessions in the region. Though Afghanistan, like Nepal and Bhutan, was never ruled by the British, all had their foreign policy determined by the British, which also determined their defence policies. That is the role the USA would like to have, of determining foreign and defence policies, while leaving ‘native’ rulers in place.

The oath-taking is also being attended by the Prime Minister of Mauritius. French until 1810, Mauritius was a sugar island, and when slavery was abolished, the slaves were replaced by Indian indentured labour. The majority of the population is of Indian origin. As it is near India, it is a possibility if SAARC is ever to be expanded. What Modi said during the election campaign about the rights of ‘overseas Indians’ to return to India would seem to apply to Indo-Mauritians, as well as to Indo-Fijians or Indo-West Indians. Mauritius has had ethnic Indians as Prime Ministers.

The Indo-Pakistan peace process has always been slow, and subject to opposing forces on both sides. Though the biggest issue in it has been Kashmir, the biggest problem has actually been the existence of Pakistan. It should be noted that Modi does not represent a debate. True, the BJP is that much more Hindu fundamentalist than Congress, but it should not be forgotten that its archrival, Congress, is as much anti-Pakistan. It might be best described as Hindu supremacist, rather than fundamentalist.

Though the Nawaz-Modi meeting may have been the result of grand gestures, the post-oath meeting was predictable in not yielding any major breakthroughs. While Mian Nawaz may be at that point in his tenure where he wants progress on the Indo-Pak relationship, Modi has only just come to office. There was probably more symbolism than substance in Mian Nawaz’s going, but the whole of India, not just Modi, should note that it came at a time when symbols have become more important for India than ever before.

Mian Nawaz has dealt with Indian Prime Ministers before, from Chanra Shekhar to Narasimha Rao to Atal Behari Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh. Modi is thus the fifth for him. However, for Modi, he is the first Pakistani Prime Minister. And he should not forget that. Modi is not helping by raising tired issues like the Mumbai attacks, which he only does to satisfy the party cadres.

n    The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.