NEW DELHI: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a clampdown on terror groups while offering closer trade ties on Tuesday in talks with his Pakistani counterpart during an action-packed first full day in office.
Modi, sworn in Monday after a landslide election victory earlier this month, also announced a leaner ministerial team who pledged to work to fire up slowing economic growth to fulfill campaign promises.
Modi’s meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, and other South Asian leaders invited to his inauguration was a first foreign policy test for the 63-year-old, who has no prior diplomatic experience.
He stuck broadly to the position of the previous government, calling for action against anti-India militant groups in Pakistan and expressing hopes trade could bring the nuclear-armed rivals together.
Modi “underlined our concerns related to terrorism,” Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh said after the talks.
“We want peaceful and friendly relations with Pakistan. However, for such relations to proceed, it is important terror and violence is brought to an end,” Singh told reporters.
“There was discussion on trade and we noted we were fully ready to fully normalize trade and economic relations,” he added.
The two leaders smiled for the cameras earlier in the day outside a government building before a 50-minute meeting that ran overtime.
Sharif arrived Monday in New Delhi for the lavish swearing-in of Modi, a former tea boy elected leader of the world’s largest democracy with the strongest mandate in 30 years.
The Pakistani premier hailed on Tuesday a “historic opportunity” for ties and called the talks “warm and cordial.”
They had an opportunity as newly elected leaders “of meeting the hopes and aspirations of our peoples, that we will succeed in turning a new page in our relations,” Sharif said.
Modi has an image as a hardliner, even within his own Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and is regarded with deep suspicion by many in Pakistan after deadly anti-Muslim riots erupted in his western fiefdom of Gujarat in 2002.
It was the first time an Indian premier had hosted a Pakistani leader for official talks in Delhi since relations ruptured following the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people.
The attacks were blamed on Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistani militant group now blamed for an assault last week on an Indian diplomatic mission in western Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who also met Modi on Tuesday, pointed the finger at LeT for the attack in Herat. But a man claiming to be an LeT spokesman denied this in a call to Agence France-Presse’s office in Kashmir.
Big mandate, smaller team
The talks came hours after Modi announced his cabinet, with Sushma Swaraj—the most senior woman in the BJP—named foreign minister.
Lawyer Arun Jaitley emerged as the most powerful man after Modi with the key finance and defense portfolios, while BJP president Rajnath Singh is home affairs minister.
“I am conscious of the fact I am taking over at a challenging time, particularly when there is a need to restore confidence in the Indian economy,” Jaitley told reporters.
“We have to restore the pace of growth, contain inflation and obviously concentrate on fiscal consolidation itself,” he added.
As defense minister, expected to be a temporary responsibility, his challenge was underlined by another accident in which an aging Russian-made MiG fighter jet crashed in the northwest, killing the pilot.
Armed forces chiefs are desperate for new equipment to upgrade military capabilities with procurement delayed under the previous government by corruption scandals and red tape.
Modi named a 46-member government including himself — 25 fewer than in the outgoing administration headed by the left-leaning Congress party.
The smaller team is intended to speed decision-making and slash India’s notorious bureaucracy, blamed in part for an economy growing at its slowest in a decade.
India still has what seems enviable 4.9-percent growth, but needs double-digit expansion to create enough jobs to employ a ballooning youth population, economists say.