In the thick of Track-2 diplomacy between Indian and Pakistani ‘well-meaning pundits’, earlier this century, some starry-eyed romanticist would muse, loudly, about a day when an Indian or Pakistani leader would pick up the phone and inform his opposite number that he was going to have a bite with him that very day at lunch or dinner. Another would day-dream, loud enough for others to share his ‘vision,’ of a rosy India-Pakistan scenario with the musing that a day would dawn when leaders of the two would have breakfast in Kabul, lunch in Islamabad, dinner in Delhi and, subject to over-indulgence, cool it out with a night-on-the-town in the lap of Bollywood. Narendra Modi — a least-likely leader to fit into the day-dreamer’s ‘vision’ almost single-handedly translated both dreams into reality with his Christmas-day ‘surprise’ landing in Lahore on Friday, December 25.
December 25 was the birthday of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. So it may not have been all that much of a surprise to him when his Indian counterpart called him early in the morning from Kabul to wish him a happy birthday. But Nawaz must have been knocked out of his wits four hours later when Modi told him he would be touching down at Lahore before the sunset. His plane landed in Lahore an hour before the sun went down.
Media accounts of Modi’s Santa-surprise to Nawaz say it was so sudden that despite Nawaz’s hurried summons, his National Security Adviser, Nasir Janjua, couldn’t make it to Lahore from Islamabad in time. The same fate awaited Pakistan’s de-facto Foreign Minister, Sartaj Aziz; he, too, was conspicuous by his absence in Lahore. By design or by sheer force of the Modi-surprise, the only Pakistani VIPs there to receive and greet him in Lahore were Finance Minister Ishaq Dar — an in-law of Nawaz — and Punjab Chief Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s younger sibling. No surprise that these two — Dar and Shehbaz — are also pillars of Nawaz’s kitchen-cabinet.
A family affair it turned out to be as Nawaz whisked Modi in a helicopter to his sprawling family estate on the outskirts of Lahore. It’s called JatiUmra — named after the Sharif clan’s original abode in what’s now the Indian Punjab. There, a dozen or so prominent members of the Sharif clan — including his two business-tycoon sons from London — were all agog to greet their high-profile guest from across the border. Modi didn’t disappoint the clan; he descended bearing gifts for Nawaz’s grand-daughter, getting married on Dec. 27. So his bearing the gifts, a la Santa Claus, gelled perfectly with the festive ambience and the spirit of the day for the Nawaz family.
And how could Modi not add a touch of his personal charisma that has already won him hearts around the world; meeting Nawaz’s ageing mother, Modi bent down to touch her feet and, in return, received her blessings in spades. There was no doubting of a budding personal rapport between Modi and Nawaz in dazzling display all through the two hours that Modi spent with the Nawaz clan. The bonhomie between the two leaders was not only unscripted but unalloyed as well. That, come to think of it, is a blessing for the two peoples across the Great Divide. We are — both Indians and Pakistanis — a people who lay so much store by our love of traditions and familial trust counts as a valuable trust.
So if Modi and Nawaz can cut across the protocol norms with their bonhomie and camaraderie it should be welcomed with an open heart and not picked on, as some irate detractors of Nawaz have out of sheer cussedness.
The Nawaz-baiters are decrying Modi’s Santa Claus appearance at the Nawaz family estate as nothing more than a PR bonanza from Modi to promote the Nawaz clan’s business interests with Sajan Jindal, scion of the famous Jindal family of India whose $ 18 billion holdings in steel and other commercial interests won them the 23rd spot on Forbes List of the world’s richest in 2015.
These anti-Nawaz forces have been insinuating at a fledgling deal between the Jindals and the Sharifs for a jointly-financed steel mills project in India or somewhere else. That Sajan Jindal was ensconced at the Sharif Estate before Modi’s arrival there added grist to the rumour mills. Understandably, it’s a valid question for pundits to ask whether the out-of-the-blue Modi visit to Lahore — which had also played host to Atal Bihari Vajpayee in February 1999 when he created history by travelling to Lahore on board a bus to keep his date with the same Nawaz — was only to cheer up Nawaz and his clan or was there more to it than met the eye? The departing Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad TCA Raghavan summed it up most succinctly when he said, recently, that India-Pakistan relations were at “a tipping point.” And at this crucial and sensitive juncture, it indeed is a blessing for the peoples of the two countries to have leaders who understand the centrality of the market place in inter-state and international relations.
Modi and Nawaz are leaders cut from the same cloth. With their well-honed business sense they know the importance of out-of-the-box thinking — an indispensable tool in the Herculean task to get the bilateral relationship out of the rut where years of addiction to the opiate of one-upmanship and point-scoring has marooned them.
They know that traditional diplomacy hasn’t taken the relationship very far and if they are serious about their agenda to bask their countries in the glow of 21st century economic sunshine, then they have no choice but to take to unconventional means.
Regular doses of advice administered to both Modi and Nawaz from their ‘friends’ abroad, particularly those in the Western world, no doubt seem to be having effect. Moderation and tamped-down rhetoric is gradually edging out the shrill, bone-crunching, verbosity of yore. In his address at the newly-inaugurated Afghan Parliament Building — a gift to the Afghans from India — Modi did take a swipe at Pakistan’s unhappiness at India-Afghan camaraderie but there was no sting or heft in his critique. It was obvious that he didn’t wish to muddy the waters just hours before flying into Lahore.
Modi’s moderation apparently sat well with the powers-that-be in Washington. The State Department spokesman, John Kirby, welcomed Modi’s overture as a prop to “benefit the entire region.” Nothing surprising, therefore, in it that no joint statement was issued from either Delhi or Islamabad at the end of the ‘surprise’ Modi visit to Lahore.
But within hours of it, the Foreign Office in Islamabad announced that its Foreign Secretary will be visiting Delhi, on January 15, to sit down with his Indian counterpart to work out an agenda for the commencement of that “comprehensive” bilateral dialogue Sushma Swaraj promised earlier in the month in Islamabad. The two countries couldn’t have hoped for a better New Year gift.
The author is a former Pakistan diplomat.