Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi sprang a surprise on Friday by deciding to go to Lahore for a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the last Indian premier to visit Pakistan eleven years ago.
By a strange coincidence, Modi will hold talks with Nawaz Sharif on the day that Vajpayee turns 91. The Bharatiya Janata Party veteran had gone to Islamabad in January 2004 to attend the 12th SAARC Summit.
Vajpayee’s visit had boosted the composite dialogue process as then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf gave an assurance that he would not permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism.
It was widely expected that Vajpayee’s successor, Manmohan Singh, would visit Pakistan, especially since he was born in a village in Punjab province, but the 2008 Mumbai attacks derailed the bilateral dialogue and ruled out such a trip.
Modi recently accepted an invitation to go to Pakistan to attend the next SAARC Summit and it was widely expected that he would travel to Islamabad in September 2016.
However, the Prime Minister surprised everyone by announcing on Twitter on Friday morning that he would travel to Lahore for a meeting with Sharif after his brief visit to Kabul, where he inaugurated Afghanistan’s new parliament building constructed by India at a cost of $90 million.
Several birthdays have coincided with Modi’s visit. Besides Vajpayee, December 25 is also the birthday of Sharif and Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Sharif had visited India in May last year to attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony after the BJP romped to power in the general election. In a bid to boost ties with all of India’s neighbours, Modi invited the heads of all SAARC states to his inauguration.
In the more than six decades since India and Pakistan became independent in 1947, only three Indian prime ministers have visited Pakistan.
Jawaharlal Nehru travelled to Pakistan in July 1953, almost six years after independence. Nehru again travelled to Pakistan in September 1960, when the Indus Waters Treaty was inked.
Nehru’s grandson Rajiv Gandhi visited Pakistan twice – in December 1988 and in July 1989. During his first visit, Gandhi became the first Indian Prime Minister to go to Pakistan in 28 years. He also signed a key accord with Benazir Bhutto on not attacking each other’s nuclear facilities and installations.
Like Gandhi, Vajpayee too travelled to Pakistan twice. But just months after his first visit in February 1999, Pakistani soldiers occupied strategic heights in the Kargil sector of the Line of Control, triggering a brief but bitter conflict that ended when the US pressured then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to pull back the troops.
In January 2004, Vajpayee again visited Pakistan to attend a SAARC Summit.