NEW DELHI: It was a day when ‘Modi’ was the top trend in Pakistani twittersphere and ‘Lahore’ was the most-tweeted word across the border. Not surprising, since it was after 11 years that an Indian PM landed on Pakistani soil on a surprise stopover and travelled in a Pakistani chopper to the residence of his counterpart.
At 1.30 pm, the Prime Minister tweeted, “Spoke to PM Nawaz Sharif & wished him on his birthday”. It was relatively innocuous, but the following tweet was a bombshell.
“Looking forward to meeting PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore today afternoon, where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi,” Modi posted, while he was still amidst official appointments in Kabul.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also used twitter to hail the ‘sudden’ visit. “That’s like a statesman. Padosi se aise hi rishte hone chahiyen (Relations with neighbours should be like this),” she said.
After over four hours, the Indian Air Force plane carrying Modi landed at Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore at 4.52 p.m. First, the protocol officer went into the plane and then Modi walked down alone. At the bottom of the stairs, PM Nawaz Sharif was waiting — both reached out to each other at the same time and hugged. Then, their hands entwined, both of them walked on the red carpet to view the Guard of Honour.
It was the first time an Indian PM was in Pakistan since 2004 — when Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled for the SAARC summit. It has been an even longer wait for Lahore, with Vajpayee’s historical bus trip in 1999 being the last glimpse of an Indian premier in the city.
In fact, December 25 is a day of significance for South Asia — not only was it was Christmas, but it marked the birthdays of Pakistan founder MA Jinnah, Vajpayee and Sharif.
From the airport tarmac, Modi, Sharif and an 11-member group took off in a chopper belonging to the government of Punjab province for a short ride to Raiwind, just outside Lahore. The entourage included National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary
S Jaishankar. The rest of the 100-member Indian delegation waited at the airport.
They landed in the grounds of a nearby medical college and then drove the short distance to Sharif’s farmhouse complex. The Sharif brothers’ residence, named Jati Umra after their ancestral village near Amritsar, had been decorated lavishly with twinkling lights for the wedding of Nawaz’s granddaughter Mehrunnisa.
At Jati Umra, Sharif’s family members greeted Modi after he disembarked from his car.
Official sources asserted that the unannounced stopover was a “spontaneous gesture” which was hatched during the morning phone call by Modi to Sharif to convey his birthday greetings. “ It was completely spontaneous... PM was going to overfly Lahore and Sharif said that he was in Lahore, and why don’t they meet,” said a government official. Official sources described Modi dropping in at Lahore as a reciprocal gesture for Sharif’s presence at his swearing-in ceremony.
Meanwhile, the foreign secretaries will meet on January 15 in Islamabad. Though there was no official announcement, sources said Jaishankar will travel to Islamabad to hold talks with his counterpart Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry.
Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhary said Modi asked Sharif if he could make a stop in Pakistan on his way home. “And the PM said to him, ‘Please come, you are our guest, please come and have tea with me’,” said Chaudhary.
There were, however, raised eyebrows over the presence of a Haryana steel baron in Lahore, who according to some media reports has been a go-between for Modi and Sharif. The Ministry of External Affairs had earlier denied that Modi and Sharif had met the secretary in Kathmandu at the hotel room of the steel baron. Buttressing the last-minute nature of the visit, sources pointed out that Modi had gone empty-handed to Sharif’s house. “Obviously, since it was a spontaneous move, he didn’t have any gifts with him. He just gave his blessings to the bride,” Chaudhary said.
Indian High Commissioner T C A Raghavan couldn’t receive Modi at the airport, as he was driving from Islamabad and since flights between were not available at that time.
“He dashed through the four-and-a-half-hour drive, but still could not make it in time. So, he was told to directly go to Raiwind,” he said.
During their 90 minutes at Sharif’s residence, Modi not only met all of his close family members, but also blessed the bride and reportedly touched the feet of Nawaz’s mother. The discussion was apparently informal and “freewheeling” - ranging from Atal Behari Vajpayee to the need to strengthen relations. On his return to Delhi, Modi tweeted, “Nawaz Sharif Sahab’s affection towards Atal ji is very touching”. “He recalled their interactions & asked me to convey his regards to Atal ji,” he added.
“Am personally touched by Nawaz Sharif Sahab’s gesture of welcoming me at Lahore airport and coming to the airport when I left,” he posted on the microblogging platform. According to sources, the two leaders also discussed ways to “insulate the relationship from ups and downs”. “There was also talk that leaders in the neighbourhood should be able to visit each other like this without much hype,” he said.
The Foreign Secretary claimed that “among decisions taken was that ties between the two countries would be strengthened and also people-to-people contact would be strengthened so that an atmosphere can be created in which the peace process can move forward”.
When Modi returned to the capital, he managed to do what his predecessor Manmohan Singh had wistfully talked of, albeit in reverse- breakfast in Kabul, tea in Lahore and dinner in Delhi.