NEW DELHI -- In a strategic as well as emotionally-charged speech in the Afghan Parliament today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of India's long-standing ties with the conflict-ridden nation, while pledging continued support for its development through hard times.
In a watershed moment for India-Afghanistan relations, Modi inaugurated the Afghan Parliament building, which India has built over the course of several years. The Afghanis have named one wing of the building - Atal Block - after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji, who celebrated his 91st birthday today.
"Yari hai imaan mera, yaar meri zindagi (Friendship is my faith, the friend is my life)," Modi said, quoting the famous dialogue from the 1973 movie Zanjeer.
Modi's inauguration of the Afghan Parliament and his speech inside its main hall marked a milestone in Indo-Afghan relations. Symbolically, the imposing facade topped by a golden dome, which replaces the bombed out structure of the old parliament building, represents the country's transition to democracy.
Strategically, the Afghan Parliament is a physical manifestation of New Delhi's efforts to grow its "soft power" since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, in a country which has long been a safe haven for Pakistan's proxy groups that target India, as well as other terrorists and militants who destabilise the region.
Instead of putting troops on the ground like the United States, India has sought to extend its influence in Afghanistan by focusing on developmental projects ranging from building infrastructure and power lines to providing scholarships for education and exchanging medical expertise.
Uncomfortable with India's presence in its backyard, Pakistan has accused India of using its consulates in Afghanistan to support the insurgency in its volatile region of Balochistan.
Despite repeated attacks on its citizens, diplomats and consulates in Afghanistan, India has dug in its heels and pushed ahead with its agenda to counter Pakistan's influence in the country.
India is also building the Salma Dam in Afghanistan at a cost estimate of Rs 1,775.69 crore.
"We could not have chosen a more special day than the birthday of one of the tallest leaders of our time, former Prime Minister and Bharat Ratna Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji. Eleven years ago, he dreamt of this project in partnership with Karzai Saheb," Modi said on Friday.
"And, we are deeply touched that you have chosen to name one of the wings in this building the Atal Block," he said.
In his speech, which covered the cultural and historical relations between the two countries, Modi talked about India's contribution to Afghanistan over the past decade.
"Power and water will flow out of Salma Dam soon," he said. "The Stor Palace will again stand as a symbol of your priceless heritage. Our scheme of 1000 scholarships every year for Afghan students in India will continue. We are pleased with the response to our special scholarship scheme in agriculture science."
The Prime Minister also announced 500 scholarships for the children of the martyrs of Afghan security forces.
"To every Afghan, who has risked or lost his life so that his Indian guest is safe, I convey the eternal gratefulness of India," Modi said.
"To Indian diplomats, officers, engineers and doctors, who serve here with pride, to the families of our Indian martyrs, I express the gratitude of Indians and Afghans," he said.
Spent time with the courageous ITBP personnel at India House in Kabul. pic.twitter.com/ZKojK6uDTy— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 25, 2015
In his speech today, Modi subtly responded to claims that India plots against Pakistan in its consulates in Afghanistan, especially inciting unrest in Balochistan.
"You have judged us by what you see, not what others tell you, including about the mysterious Indian consulates," he said. "You know that India is here to contribute not to compete, to lay the foundations of future, not light the flame of conflict, to rebuild lives, not destroy a nation."
Diverging from India's standard line of attack against Pakistan, Modi underlined the need for all of Afghanistan's neighbours - India, Pakistan, Iran - to cooperate if the embattled nation had to succeed and for the region to prosper.
"That is why we are working to improve your connectivity by land and sea, including through Chahbahar in Iran," he said. "That is why I hope that Pakistan will become a bridge between South Asia and Afghanistan and beyond."
In a surprise announcement on Friday afternoon, Modi tweeted that he is meeting Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on his way back to Delhi from Kabul.
Sharif celebrated his birthday on December 25th.
Looking forward to meeting PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore today afternoon, where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 25, 2015
Spoke to PM Nawaz Sharif & wished him on his birthday.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 25, 2015
Also on HuffPost: