Will they or won’t they? It was like a gripping thriller. As Saarc concluded, leaders on the stage walked up to bid each other farewell.
A few heads of government — including Narendra Modi — were huddled together. Nawaz Sharif was having a final word with the Nepali foreign minister. But all eyes were on what would happen next.
Sharif took a few steps to his right and Modi, almost simultaneously with studied casualness, moved a bit left. And there it was. No one could say the other did not make an effort — that has been the reason for no meeting in this trip, with both sides putting the onus on the other to request for one. ‘National pride’ and civility were maintained after the cold vibes of the first day of the summit.
Modi and Sharif shook hands.
The hall erupted with applause. Other leaders broke into smiles.
Spurred by the applause, they continued the handshake, they smiled and even laughed.
Watch: Modi, Sharif shake hands at SAARC closing event
The stage had been set earlier in the day, at a retreat in Dhulikhel, on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Leaders were flying there in a chopper in alphabetical order of the names of their countries. Modi arrived at 10.30am, and spent time with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay. When Sharif arrived, he and Modi ‘exchanged pleasantries’, as ministry of external affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin put it.
All leaders also sat around the same table for lunch for over an hour and there was, in all likelihood, exchanges between the two about Saarc issues. It was during this meeting that Pakistan shed its objection to an agreement on energy cooperation. But no separate conversation occurred between Modi and Sharif on bilateral issues.
HT had reported earlier that interface between Modi and Sharif was certain — but the big question was if it would be a mere handshake, a full meeting, or a brief chat. The countries settled for the lowest common denominator.
But it gave something to the hosts to cheer about, for it was in Nepal in 2002 that Pervez Musharraf walked up to Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the stage after the Parliament attack.
Sushil Koirala told reporters later that the issue was being over blown. “Right from the beginning, when I read the papers, it was a surprise actually. Both of them were talking in a very friendly way and shook hands every time in every meeting.”
Was it his initiative? Koirala said, “How does it matter?” But Indian sources said Nepal had provided an ‘outstanding’ environment at the retreat.
The handshake showed the utility and weakness of the Saarc platform. It got two leaders who haven’t been on talking terms together. But the fact that a mere handshake draws so much attention is a testament to the long way Delhi and Islamabad, and Saarc, have to go.