New Delhi, Feb 25:
In a major step forward in its neighbourhood outreach policy, the Indian government is sending Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar on a ‘yatra’ of four SAARC countries, including Pakistan, from March 1.
The visit, begins with key neighbour Bhutan March 1, followed by Bangladesh March 2, Pakistan March 3 and Afghanistan the following day.
The visit to the rest of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) neighbours – Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal – is yet to be announced.
The external affairs ministry moved fast in announcing the dates, days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted Feb 17 that Jaishankar would be leaving on a SAARC yatra soon.
Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said in a statement that the foreign secretary will be undertaking the visit “in accordance with the prime minister’s directives”.
Modi is likely to go on a bilateral visit to the two key Indian Ocean neighbours of Maldives and Sri Lanka in mid-March, during which he is to be accompanied by the foreign secretary.
Jaishankar, who was India’s envoy to the US before being appointed foreign secretary Jan 28, would be visiting the two countries later.
Modi had also visited Nepal twice last year, one a standalone bilateral visit and the second for the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu.
Of Jaishankar’s SAARC yatra, the most-watched destination will be the visit to Islamabad March 3.
Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam said in Islamabad that following Modi’s call to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif Feb 13, “Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar would visit Pakistan March 3-4”.
“During his visit, Jaishankar would hold a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry,” said Aslam.
Both sides have started preparations for the much-anticipated visit.
Despite the initial bonhomie with Pakistan after the Modi government took over last year, relations have soured between the two, especially over Islamabad hobnobbing with Kashmiri separatists and the ceasefire violations leading to fatalities.
India had also called off the foreign secretary level talks last August after the Pakistani envoy in India held talks with Kashmiri separatists, ignoring India’s objections.
Modi had kicked off his neighbourhood diplomacy on the day of his swearing-in May 26 last year, by inviting the leaders of the South Asian countries, including Mauritius, to the event. He had also interacted with each leader briefly the following day.
The government has been holding high-level interactions with the neighbours. Modi had chosen Bhutan for his first overseas trip after he took over last year. He has also visited Nepal, while External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has separately visited Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and touched down in Maldives.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena was in India earlier this month, on his maiden overseas trip after his election in January – a visit seen as turning a fresh page in bilateral relations after tension in ties during the term of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. IANS