New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'surprise' visit to Lahore on his way back from Kabul was a planned affair pushed by diplomats from across the border and two steel families.
Hospitality: Modi and Sharif at the latter’s palatial home.
Former Pakistan High Commissioner to India, Salman Bashir, laid the foundation of the meeting, the first trip by an Indian PM to Pakistan in 11 years, during a recent private visit to India, diplomatic sources in the Indian Capital told mid-day.
If the diplomatic move was the first push, the second came from none other than Mumbai-based steel tycoon Sajjan Jindal, a personal friend of Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif, whose family is also into the steel business through the Ittefaq group of Industries, an integrated steel producer with major operations in Punjab district of Pakistan. It was founded by industrialist Muhammad Sharif, the father of Nawaz Sharif.
“Jindal is in Lahore for the last couple of days to attend the wedding of Nawaz Sharif's grand daughter. The two families often discuss business strategies,” said the sources.
Lahore-based journalist Kaswar Kalsra said it would be ridiculous to presume Modi flew into Lahore from Kabul unannounced. “Backroom diplomacy has been continuing between India and Pakistan since 1977,” said Kalsra. “What is new now is the economic push from the likes of Jindal.”
Modi's visit came nearly 19 months after Sharif and other South Asian leaders were in New Delhi for Modi's oath taking in May 2014. Moments before leaving Kabul, Modi greeted Sharif on his birthday over telephone.
Jindal, who was in Lahore to wish Sharif on his birthday, has been a close friend of the Pakistan's first family and it was he who suggested to Sharif to invite Modi to attend Sharif's grand daughter's wedding at Raiwind, 40 km from Lahore near the Wagah border.
Jindal, who tweeted that he was in Lahore to celebrate Sharif's birthday on Friday, is not new to diplomatic manoeuvres between the two nations.
At the SAARC Summit in land-locked Kathmandu last year, the Indian steel baron had facilitated a high-powered meeting between Modi and Sharif.
After Sharif and Modi hugged at the Allama Iqbal International Airport as he landed in an Indian Air Force plane, the two took a helicopter to Sharif's residence at Raiwind for the wedding and “some talks”, the sources said.
Pakistan's Geo TV, however, reported the visit “was not that surprising” as the Lahore Air Traffic Control had been told about it on Thursday.
But few in India and Pakistan knew about the programme, coming at a time when bilateral relations between New Delhi and Islamabad showed definite improvement after months of tensions and border clashes.
Modi and Sharif had met at the Paris Climate Summit on November 30, laying the foundation for a resumption of the stalled bilateral dialogue.
Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who accompanied Modi to Lahore, met his Pakistani counterpart in Bangkok earlier this month, to be followed by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's visit to Islamabad.
The two foreign secretaries are set to meet in January, also in the Pakistani capital.
Sharif and his brother and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif were among those who received Modi at the airport with bouquets. Also present were Pakistan Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and the Indian envoy, T C A Raghavan.
After pleasantries and a guard of honour by the Pakistani Air Force for Modi, the two prime ministers boarded a helicopter and reached Raiwind. Indian and Pakistani officials did not reveal anything about what the two leaders discussed.
Interestingly, before leaving for Lahore, Modi addressed the Afghan parliament and blasted Islamabad — but without naming the country — for sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan.
“Terror and violence cannot be the instrument to shape Afghanistan's future or dictate the choices Afghans make,” Modi told Afghan MPs. In an obvious reference to Pakistan, Modi said there were “some who did not want us to be here. There were those who saw sinister designs in our presence here. There are others who were uneasy at the strength of our partnership. Some even tried to discourage us.”
At the same time, Modi said Pakistan must act like a bridge between South Asia and Afghanistan. “All of us in the region — India, Pakistan, Iran and others — must unite, in trust and cooperation, behind this common purpose and in recognition of our common destiny.”
Hours later, he was in Lahore. Even the Pakistan media, which started its day with screams of Modi fomenting trouble in Kabul, had to go with the Modi as statesman theme for the evening shows.