If the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on Friday came as a surprise, what led to it was a blend of the personal and the political. In the carefully choreographed and scripted nature of India-Pak diplomacy, this was as spontaneous as it gets, officials involved have confirmed to The Indian Express.
When asked what was talked about, the official said: “Nothing hugely substantial, only light talk, small talk. Both leaders talked a lot about Atal Behari Vajpayee.”
The central idea, they said, was to signal that every meeting — even at the highest level — is not a summit, every meeting doesn’t have to have an “outcome,” and Modi wanted to “demystify” the process. This, sources said, was also meant to undermine “pressure groups and hawks within, especially in the media, who raise the pitch on any meeting.”
So, sources said, when Modi called Sharif from Kabul this morning to wish him on his 66th birthday — moments before addressing the Afghan Parliament — the ball was set rolling for a possible stopover in Lahore.
The PM greeted Sharif on his birthday and then said he was over-flying Pakistan. Sharif said he was in Lahore. Modi is said to have asked him, “Lahore main kya kar rahe hain?” Nawaz said his granddaughter’s marriage was on Saturday.
Modi, who has been thrice invited by Sharif, said: “I will greet you in person.” In effect, the Prime Minister accepted the invitation that was pending since May 2014, said an official.
They ended the call without any confirmation. Over the next few hours, the meeting was put together, along with last-minute visas-on-arrival for the Indian delegation, including Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and NSA Ajit Doval. Modi called External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to apprise her of his plans. Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad T C A Raghavan was on leave. He was informed about the stopover by Indian officials in Kabul, minutes before Modi tweeted about it at 1.31 pm. Raghavan flew in a chartered flight from Islamabad and joined the PM’s team at Sharif’s Raiwind residence, where the two prime ministers went in a helicopter.
From the Pakistan side, only Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary — who was at his Lahore home for the Christmas holiday — was able to make it. NSA Naseer Khan Janjua and Sharif’s Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz, both in Islamabad, could not make it.
The decision was so last-minute that Indian diplomats were given mandatory permission to travel outside Islamabad by Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry over the phone. The coordination took place over the phone by Indian diplomats, as they travelled from Islamabad to Lahore.
Only Sharif’s brother, Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, and Pakistan’s Finance Minister Ishaq Dar were part of the “cordial” meeting between the two prime ministers.
Sources said they agreed to schedule the meeting of Foreign Secretaries around January 15-16 in Islamabad.
Officially, news of the stopover was announced by Modi on Twitter: “Looking forward to meeting PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore today afternoon, where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi.”
Within minutes, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted: “That’s like a statesman. Padosi se aise hi rishte hone chahiyen (One should have such relations with neighbours).”
It was during Swaraj’s visit to Pakistan earlier this month that the two sides decided to restart the comprehensive bilateral dialogue.
After returning to Delhi, Modi said he was “personally touched” by Sharif’s gesture of welcoming him at the airport and seeing him off. He also called “very touching” Sharif’s affection towards BJP veteran and former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. “He (Sharif) recalled their interactions & asked me to convey his regards to Atal ji,” Modi said in another tweet.
“Nawaz Sahab’s birthday & granddaughter’s marriage made it a double celebration,” he tweeted.
Modi, who became the first Indian PM to visit Pakistan after Vajpayee in 2004, was accorded a red carpet welcome as the special IAF aircraft landed at Lahore at about 4.50 pm IST.
He was received by Sharif with a warm hug at the tarmac of Allama Iqbal International Airport. Both then took a chopper to reach Sharif’s Raiwind residence in the outskirts of Lahore.
Modi also met Sharif’s family and “blessed” his grand-daughter Mehrunnisa, whose wedding is taking place at Sharif’s residence. Sharif later came to the airport to see Modi off.
This was the second meeting between the two prime ministers in less than a month, after their interaction on the sidelines of the climate change talks in Paris on November 30.
In Lahore, Chaudhary said the stopover took place in an atmosphere of goodwill and foreign secretaries will now meet in January to take forward the modalities of the dialogue process.
He described Modi’s stopover as a “goodwill visit” and said the two leaders discussed the comprehensive dialogue which the two countries have recently decided to start.
“The two leaders decided to take forward the dialogue process,” Chowdhury said, adding that they agreed to “open ways for peace and a better atmosphere”, while understanding each other’s concerns.
“Both leaders expressed their desire to carry forward the dialogue process for the larger good of people of the two countries,” said the spokesperson of Pakistan’s Foreign Office.
A senior diplomatic source said: “What is important is that India and Pakistan are now not following unnecessary formalities. Even a Joint Secretary visit to Pakistan becomes news, it prompts questions like will they speak to the Hurriyat, will there be a joint statement, will they sip tea? Such speculation is more of an obstacle. For a better relationship, you need to avoid hype, don’t let pressure groups dictate every meeting India and Pakistan make.”