In a diplomatic coup, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to Lahore on Friday for a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif that gave fresh impetus to the recently reset bilateral dialogue. Modi’s unscheduled visit marked the first time in 11 years that an Indian prime minister travelled to Pakistan and came after a year and a half of a roller-coaster ride in India-Pakistan ties.
Modi was received warmly by Sharif when he landed at the Allama Iqbal International Airport on Friday evening after a brief visit to Kabul where he inaugurated Afghanistan’s new parliament building. This was also Modi’s first visit to Pakistan.
Though it was dubbed an impromptu stopover by both sides, speculation remained rife that the visit was planned a week in advance but kept secret, a theory lent credence by the fact that Pakistan’s envoy to India Abdul Basit had been in Pakistan for the past two days. “Those who practise the art of diplomacy know some surprises are not really that,” a source said.
Indian steel magnate Sajjan Jindal, believed to have played a role in arranging a meeting between Modi and Sharif on the sidelines of a Saarc summit in Kathmandu last year, too was in Lahore on Friday.
Another source said planning was done to make the visit grand in symbolic terms as Friday was the birthday of both Sharif and former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee. Adding to the symbolism, the two leaders travelled the 15 km between Lahore airport and Sharif’s farmhouse in a helicopter.
“So, you have finally come,” Sharif told Modi, according to a Pakistani foreign ministry official who was at the meeting. “Yes, absolutely. I am here,” Modi replied, according to the official. Sharif introduced Modi to his family and aides before the two leaders talked.
A source at the Pakistani prime minister’s home was quoted by PTI as saying that Modi touched the feet of Sharif’s mother when she entered the hall where the two leaders were meeting.
Modi and Sharif talked for about 90 minutes and shared an early-evening meal before the Indian leader flew back home. Soon after he returned to Delhi, Modi posted on Twitter: “Am personally touched by Nawaz Sharif Sahab’s gesture of welcoming me at Lahore airport and coming to the airport when I left.”
Modi and Sharif “expressed their desire to carry forward the dialogue process for larger good of peoples of the two countries” and also agreed to “continue and enhance contacts and work together to establish good neighborly relations”, a spokesperson for Pakistan’s foreign office tweeted after the visit. “Among the decisions taken was that ties between the two countries would be strengthened and also people-to-people contact would be strengthened so that the atmosphere can be created in which the peace process can move forward,” Pakistan foreign secretary Aizaz Chaudhry told reporters after the meet.
Few details about the meeting emerged from the Indian side, with the external affairs ministry spokesperson saying in a tweet: “Beyond the noise, a personal connect. The Prime Ministers discuss #IndiaPakistan relations in Raiwind.” Modi also tweeted he spent a “warm evening with Sharif family at their family home” and that Sharif’s “birthday & granddaughter’s marriage made it a double celebration”.
He further said he was touched by Sharif’s affection for Vajpayee, who had visited Pakistan in 1999 when Sharif was the premier. However, that visit was followed by the Kargil conflict, triggered when Pakistani troops occupied strategic heights along the Line of Control.
Vajpayee’s visit in 2004 had been the last by an Indian prime minister to Pakistan before Modi’s Friday stopover.
This was the third meeting between Modi and Sharif since July – when they held talks on the sidelines of the SCO Summit in the Russian city of Ufa – marking an uptick in high-level bilateral contacts following a prolonged freeze in ties.
With agency inputs