NEW DELHI: India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy and the focus on cooperation with Indian Ocean states were the main factors behind a decision to invite the leaders of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka to the prime minister’s inauguration on June 9.

Formal invitations have been sent to all seven countries for PM Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony. (Bloomberg)

Initial reports had said the leaders of five countries would be invited to the ceremony where Narendra Modi will take oath for his third term, but people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity on Thursday that the Maldives and Seychelles had been added to the list.

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Modi invited the leaders of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and Mauritius to attend the inauguration during separate phone conversations on Wednesday, and formal invitations were sent to all seven countries on Thursday, the people said.

“The focus is on forging closer relations and enhancing cooperation with island nations in the Indian Ocean region. Besides, all the countries that have been invited have a key place in the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy,” one of the people cited above said.

Even before the formal invitations were sent out, officials in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka had confirmed the participation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

An aide to Hasina even announced that the premier would travel to New Delhi on Friday because the Bangladeshi side was led to believe the swearing-in ceremony would be held on June 8. Since the formal invitation mentioned that the inauguration was scheduled for June 9, officials in Dhaka said the premier would travel to India on Saturday.

Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu was a surprise addition to the list of invitees, given the strained relations between Male and New Delhi since his election last year on the back of an “India Out” campaign. Muizzu has taken a range of steps to move the Maldives closer to China, such as forcing India to recall more than 85 military personnel who were stationed in the Indian Ocean archipelago to operate two helicopters and an aircraft that were mainly used for medical evacuations and humanitarian relief operations.

The people said the decision to invite Muizzu was meant to signal that India is keen on continuing cooperation with the Maldives in key areas.

Maldives confirmed Muizzu’s acceptance of the invitation late on Thursday, with officials in Male saying he would be accompanied by three members of his cabinet, including foreign minister Moosa Zameer. This will be his first visit to India since coming to power.

There were other reasons for inviting the leaders of neighbouring countries to the inauguration, such as logistical considerations, the people said. Most of these leaders have close relations with India and would be willing to attend at short notice, while their presence would signal New Delhi’s intention to keep the focus on the neighbourhood, the people said.

Hasina, during her phone call with Modi on Wednesday, pointed to the “very cordial and friendly relations between Bangladesh and India”. Bangladesh is currently India’s closest partner in the neighbourhood and both sides have taken forward several initiatives for road, rail and energy connectivity.

In his phone conversation with Wickremesinghe on Wednesday, Modi described Sri Lanka as an important partner in the “Neighbourhood First” policy and said India is “proud to be a dependable partner” for the island nation.

The leaders of seven member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) were invited to Modi’s inauguration in 2014, while leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) were invited to his swearing-in in 2019.

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