Will Modi do what Vajpayee did in 2004?

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi may soon receive an invitation from his new Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan, to visit Islamabad for the 19th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

The invitation from Khan is likely to offer Modi an opportunity to use the multilateral forum of the SAARC to reach out to the new government of Pakistan and make yet another attempt to bring about a thaw in New Delhi’s relations with the neighbouring country.

Sources in Delhi, however, said that India would respond to Pakistan’s fresh overtures to revive the SAARC only if the neighbouring country stopped exporting terror from its territory and restrain its soldiers from violating ceasefire along the Line of Control as well as the undisputed stretch of the border.

Khan, who took over as Prime Minister of Pakistan on Saturday, already indicated that his government will make a fresh attempt to end the impasse over the SAARC and to host the 19th summit of the regional organisation. The cricketer-turned-politician told Ajay Bisaria, High Commissioner of India to Pakistan, on August 10 that he looked forward to hosting the leaders of all the South Asian nations for the summit of the eight-nation-bloc in Islamabad.

Modi’s earlier engagements with his former counterpart M Nawaz Sharif failed ostensibly because all-powerful Pakistan Army did not endorse the efforts. His “surprise visit” to Lahore to attend the wedding ceremony of Sharif’s granddaughter in December 2015 was followed a series of attacks by terrorists who sneaked into India from Pakistan, beginning with the one on Indian Air Force base at Pathankot in Punjab in January 2016.

But New Delhi is unlikely to outrightly reject Imran’s invitation to Modi and Islamabad’s fresh offer to revive the SAARC and host its summit. Senior officials in New Delhi are of the view that since Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf party is purportedly backed by the military establishment of the neighbouring country, a fresh initiative by him has a lesser chance of being sabotaged.

“Prime Minister, of course, cannot take a political risk by rushing into a bilateral engagement with his new counterpart in Pakistan with only a few months are left before the Lok Sabha elections are likely to be held in India,” a source said, adding: “But the risk would be substantially low, if he travels to Islamabad for a multilateral event like the SAARC summit and holds a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister of Pakistan, who is going to be the host of the conclave.”

New Delhi is unlikely to rush into restarting India-Pakistan dialogue, which remained stalled since January 2013. But senior officials of Modi Government are learnt to have noted that it will not in the interest of Indian if Prime Minister does not respond to the overtures made by his new counterpart in Pakistan.

The 19th SAARC summit was scheduled to be hosted by Pakistan Government in Islamabad on November 9 and 10 in 2016. It was postponed after India decided to opt out protesting against cross-border terrorism from the territory under control of Pakistan. It was after the attack on Indian Army camp at Uri in northern Kashmir in September 2016 that New Delhi decided against Modi’s visit to Islamabad for the SAARC summit to be hosted by Pakistan Government. The terrorists sneaked into India from territory under illegal occupation of Pakistan. They crossed the Line of Control and attacked the camp of the Indian Army, killing 19 soldiers.

Bhutan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh rallied behind India and wrote to Nepal – currently the chair of the bloc – that the regional situation was not conducive to hold the summit. The Maldives too joined the bandwagon later, thus forcing Pakistan Government to postpone the summit indefinitely.

Some of the SAARC member nations however of late nudged New Delhi to end the impasse over the summit and allow Pakistan Government to host it so that the regional organisation could be revived. During his meeting with Modi in New Delhi in April this year, Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, who holds the chair of the SAARC, argued in favour of ending the stalemate over the bloc’s 19th summit. Nepalese Foreign Minister, Pradeep Gyawali, also recently stated that the regional organisation should be reactivated.

In a statement condoling demise of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in New Delhi this week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan Government noted that former Prime Minister of India had been a “key supporter” of the SAARC and regional cooperation for development.

Vajpayee had, in fact, visited Islamabad to attend a SAARC summit hosted by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in January 2004 – less than three years after the Agra Summit between the two leaders failed.

Vajpayee-Musharraf bilateral meeting on the sideline of the SAARC summit in Islamabad saw both leaders agreeing on a four-point formula to end the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. But as the coalition led by Bharatiya Janata Party lost the parliamentary elections later that year, he had to leave the office of Prime Minister without making the formula public or taking the process forward. Musharraf, however, revealed the contours of the formula in a media interview in 2006.

Will Modi do what Vajpayee did in 2004 and accept Khan’s invitation to visit Islamabad for the SAARC summit?

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