Pakistan leader Nawaz Sharif to attend inauguration of India PM Narendra Modi

Sharif's move seen as step towards improving troubled relations with neighbouring India

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 May, 2014, 4:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 May, 2014, 6:57am

Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif will attend Indian prime minister-elect Narendra Modi's inauguration tomorrow, his office said, in an unprecedented diplomatic move aimed at mending strained ties.

The Pakistani prime minister's attendance will be a first in the history of the South Asian neighbours, which have fought three wars since independence in 1947 and remain bitterly divided over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Like all other heads of government from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which includes Pakistan, Sharif had also been formally invited by India last week.

"Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided to visit India and attend the swearing-in of … Modi," his spokesman said. "He will spend a night in India."

Modi will take the oath as prime minister tomorrow, 10 days after his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party scored a landslide victory, securing the first majority by a single party in 30 years.

"It's very good news that Nawaz Sharif has accepted Mr Modi's invitation," BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar said in New Delhi. "It will mark a new beginning in our ties."

Sharif, who is himself a centre-right leader, has hailed Modi's "impressive victory" and many diplomats hope the two men can thaw ties between the neighbours.

It's very good news that Nawaz Sharif has accepted Mr Modi's invitation
BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar

Sharif has cited his working relationship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's last BJP prime minister, as a reason for optimism, according to diplomatic sources.

It was during Sharif's second term in 1999 that Vajpayee rode a bus to Lahore to sign a peace accord, raising the prospect for normalisation between the two neighbours.

Three months later, the countries embarked on the Kargil conflict in the Himalayan region of Kashmir - though Sharif has blamed his then-army chief General Pervez Musharraf, who went on to overthrow him in a coup, for provoking the fighting without his knowledge.

"Vajpayee had said you can choose your friends but you can't choose your neighbours. Mr Modi is following just that" principle by extending an invitation to Sharif, Javadekar said.

In Pakistan, Sharif's move to attend the swearing-in ceremony was hailed by the religious right-wing party Jamiat Ulema-e- Islam, which is an ally of his government.

"Pakistan conveyed a positive gesture to India. The decision to attend [the] swearing-in is a welcome sign," said JUI chairman Maulana Fazalur Rehman, who also heads a parliamentary special committee on Kashmir.

He added that close ties with India "may help resolve the Kashmir issue".

Besides the disputed Kashmir region, the key issues confronting the relationship between Pakistan and India include an Islamist militancy inside India that New Delhi frequently accuses Pakistan of backing.

Bilateral ties have only slightly recovered from the rock bottom they hit after the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed by Pakistani gunmen.