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Singh and friends

What the PM must get right with Nawaz Sharif and Sheikh Hasina

During his visit to Japan last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh underscored two golden rules of diplomacy. One is to seize the moment when there is an opportunity to advance. The other is to stand by friends through thick and thin. In the coming weeks, Singh will have to demonstrate a vigorous commitment to these principles in India’s engagement with two of its most important neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The swearing in of Nawaz Sharif as the prime minister this week opens the door for a fresh start with Pakistan. As the current tenure of Sheikh Hasina comes to an end (elections are due any time from October 2013) in Bangladesh, the window for a historic consolidation of bilateral relations between Delhi and Dhaka might soon close.

Overruling fears in Delhi about annoying Beijing, Singh outlined an ambitious agenda for a strategic partnership with Japan. Delhi would have had little diplomatic credibility, least of all with Beijing, if Singh had chosen to abandon the special relationship with Japan’s premier, Shinzo Abe, in the elusive search for an accommodation with China’s new leaders. He must now show equal resolve in reaching out to Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan and keeping his word to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. Some of the PM’s boldest diplomatic moves during the last nine years of his premiership have been towards Pakistan and Bangladesh. He must now pick up the threads of the peace process with Islamabad, and finish what he started with Dhaka.

In the UPA’s first term, Singh built on his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bold agenda towards Pakistan. He came close to clinching agreements on such difficult issues as Siachen and Sir Creek, and exploring a framework of settlement on Jammu & Kashmir.

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