PM Set to Dominate SAARC Summit: Two Public Meetings And a Possible Bilateral With Sharif
SAARC leaders at PM Modi's swearing-in
NEW DELHI: The 18th Saarc summit will provide a backdrop for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to showcase himself and his government at least two civic receptions in the Himalayan state. The Nepal government has reluctantly given a nod, choosing to ignore local opposition to the Indian request from within.
Helipads are being constructed, two additional ones to allow the Indian Prime Minister to fly to three pilgrimage spots before the summit begins--Lumbini, Muktinath and Janakpur---on November 25 and address meetings at Lumbini and Janakpur. He is scheduled to distribute bicycles at the last but this has still to be confirmed.
The PM’s earlier visit to Nepal had generated considerable excitement but the unprecedented decision to address public meetings in Nepal has now lead to media reports citing sources as being “uncomfortable” with the idea as they felt that it could overshadow the Saarc meet.
A way out to turn the public meetings into a “Nepal meeting” has been reportedly formulated by the government thereby ensuring that several local leaders and Ministers address the gathering before the Indian PM. More so as the Opposition has taken up the issue, asking the government in Kathmandu to clarify whether Nepal was still a sovereign nation.
Pakistani newspapers have reported renewed back channel dialogue to prepare for a side meeting between PM Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This could be a sequel to the famous handshake at a Saarc summit in Kathmandu when then President Pervez Musharraf walked over to the Indian Prime Minister at the time, Atal Behari Vajpayee without warning, and shook hands in a rather dramatic gesture. More so as this came when the two countries were estranged, and dialogue had been suspended after Kargil.
New Delhi has been noncommittal about the meet but has not ruled it out either. MEA spokesperson was quoted as saying it was early days yet, and not possible to say with any certainty whether such a meeting would take place. Pakistan too has been quiet about the efforts although the local media there has quoted sources as confirming efforts towards such a meeting. However given the fact that there will be eight South Asian leaders who will meet during the official deliberations and against at a Retreat the possibilities for a bilateral Modi-Sharif meet are immense. And will definitely overshadow the summit even more substantially than the Indian Prime Ministers public speeches at Lumbini and Janakpur.
Pakistan remains keen to break the ice with New Delhi still reticent on this front. Clearly the meeting for PM Modi at this stage will have to be more substantive than a handshake, and the back channels are looking to making a bilateral meet on the sidelines of Saarc productive from both sides of the fence. However, given New Delhi’s response it is far from certainty and a great deal will depend on the ability of both sides to reach a common meeting ground, given the tensions that have escalated considerably over the last weeks and months.
Nepal is in the midst of preparing for the Saarc summit. PM Modi’s decision to address public meetings has created a stir but the Nepal government is playing this down. “He is our honoured guest and the government will make all the necessary preparations for the civic receptions of Mr. Modi in Janakpur and Lumbini,” Dinesh Bhattarai, Foreign Policy Advisor of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, was quoted as saying by The Hindu. He, however, said he was unaware of the exact nature of Indian request regarding the “public speech”.
In a major step towards greater regional integration in three decades of the Saarc, the South Asian nations are set to sign three framework agreements in Kathmandu for establishing rail, road and electricity connectivity. Bangladesh newspapers have reported that the negotiations among the member states on the three deals -- Agreement for the Regulation of Passenger and Cargo Vehicular Traffic amongst Saarc Member States, Saarc Regional Agreement on Railways and Saarc Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation (Electricity) -- are at the final stage.
These deals are expected to be signed by the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka during the 18th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) in the presence of their heads of state and of government.
Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has also spoken of easing road connectivity between Saarc nations. Of course as in the past little will be possible, and agreements will come to naught until and unless India and Pakistan move decisively on the road to peace.