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Will PM Modi attend SAARC summit this year? India weighing options as Pakistan prepares to host

With Afghanistan on the agenda, Pakistan has said it would be open to India participating in the summit virtually or in person, but sources said New Delhi is considering its options.

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New Delhi: India is weighing its options on whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit — which may be held in the first half of this year — even as Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Monday that his country is open to having India participate in the meeting virtually.

PM Modi may attend the summit this time, keeping in mind the soaring humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover there, with New Delhi planning to send food and other essential items to Kabul via Pakistan, top-level sources told ThePrint.

However, sources also said it will be “difficult” for India to attend the summit even virtually because New Delhi has not officially recognised the Taliban government in Afghanistan, and Pakistan would invariably invite the head of the interim regime.

The SAARC summit was due to take place in 2016, chaired by Pakistan. But India refused to attend it in the wake of the Uri terror attack in Jammu and Kashmir, and also ensured that it isolated Pakistan by diplomatically nudging other SAARC members, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, not to participate.

However, PM Modi relaunched the process, in a way, in March 2020 by calling all SAARC leaders for a special virtual meeting at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and pledging a contribution of $10 million toward a SAARC Covid-19 Emergency Fund.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan did not attend that meeting, but his representative did.

Also read: India discusses Afghanistan with Central Asia, Pakistan hosts special OIC meet same day

Afghanistan crisis main agenda in SAARC summit

Pakistan believes it has to hold the SAARC summit this year as Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian crisis after the Taliban takeover, which is why this will be the main agenda, sources in the Pakistan government told ThePrint.

Talks are still ongoing between New Delhi and Islamabad on how to send 50,000 metric tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan through Pakistan by road. The matter is apparently stuck on whether or not to send the shipment by Indian trucks, as Pakistan has said it will allow only Afghan trucks to carry this.

According to sources in the Pakistan government, all these issues will be ironed out once the SAARC summit takes place, as seamless movement of passenger and cargo vehicular traffic has been under discussion among the members for a long time.

While no dates have been finalised for the summit yet, sources quoted above said it may take place in the first half of this year.

Pakistan is scheduled to hold general elections in October next year.

India had approved the signing and ratification of the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement at the last SAARC summit on 26-27 November 2014 in Kathmandu. This matter has been on hold since then as no further summits have been held.

Addressing a press conference Monday in Islamabad, Qureshi said, “I reiterate the invitation to all SAARC members. Pakistan is willing to host the 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad. If India doesn’t want to participate in person, then it can attend virtually also, but they should not stop others from coming.”

He also said, “India has made the SAARC forum dysfunctional. Pakistan considers SAARC an important forum for regional cooperation, regional economic activity, regional trade.”

In 2016, as India decided not to attend the SAARC summit, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan also boycotted it.

This report has been updated to correct the year in which Pakistan’s next general elections are scheduled to be held

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

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