Modi gives Sharif a birthday surprise

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (above, right) is welcomed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Nawaz Sharif, at the airport in Lahore, Pakistan, on Friday. The visit was initiated over a phone call Mr Modi made to greet Mr Sharif on his 66th bi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (above, right) is welcomed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Nawaz Sharif, at the airport in Lahore, Pakistan, on Friday. The visit was initiated over a phone call Mr Modi made to greet Mr Sharif on his 66th birthday. Within four hours of that call, the Indian leader had landed in Lahore.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Sudden goodwill visit to Pakistan is the first by an Indian prime minister in over a decade

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled off a Christmas Day surprise, becoming the first premier from India to visit Pakistan in over a decade. The visit signals new determination on his part to promote peace with Pakistan and has infused fresh momentum in peace talks between the two sides, say analysts.

It was a spontaneous gesture, said sources, initiated over a phone call Mr Modi made to greet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his 66th birthday on Friday.

Within four hours of that call made from Kabul, Afghanistan, where the Indian leader was visiting, Mr Modi had landed in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab, at 5.05pm.

He was greeted by Mr Sharif at the airport and taken by helicopter to the latter's ancestral house in Raiwind, 42km from Lahore, where the two leaders had a meeting for over 11/2 hours.

They spoke in Hindi on "insulating talks" from setbacks and on the just-resumed dialogue process that will see a meeting of their foreign secretaries on Jan 15 in Islamabad.

STAKING HIS REPUTATION

He (Modi) has finally concluded that there is no choice but to have dialogue with Pakistan. Therefore, he is investing a lot of personal capital into this and taking a risk.

FORMER INDIAN FOREIGN SECRETARY LALIT MANSINGH, on how the Indian Premier is risking his personal reputation in looking for peace with Pakistan

It is understood that both leaders expressed their desire to take the dialogue process forward; Pakistan's Foreign Secretary, Mr Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, told the media the visit was a "goodwill gesture" from India.

India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars and have a simmering territorial dispute, have a difficult relationship. Many past attempts at talks have been derailed either due to terror attacks in India or cross-border firing along the Line of Control, the de facto border.

Mr Modi, who had started his engagement with Pakistan by inviting Mr Sharif to his inauguration in May last year, later hardened his position towards Pakistan.

He demanded action on terrorism, with Delhi viewing Pakistan as harbouring terrorists that target India , and progress in the trial of seven Pakistani suspects of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Pakistan, in turn, has sought to make the disputed Kashmir state the focus of talks.

But in a sudden sign of softening positions, the national security advisers of the two countries met in Bangkok early this month, followed by Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj's visit to Islamabad where the two sides agreed to resume comprehensive talks.

Mr Modi, analysts said, was risking his personal reputation in looking for peace with Pakistan, as was Mr Sharif in Pakistan where the military has the last word on ties with India.

"He (Modi) has finally concluded that there is no choice but to have dialogue with Pakistan. Therefore, he is investing a lot of personal capital into this and taking a risk.

"Nothing has changed on the ground. Talks may be derailed by a terror attack," said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

"Still it has created an atmosphere of goodwill," he added.

Though Mr Modi's visit received largely positive feedback in India and Pakistan, some Indian opposition parties criticised the Premier.

Congress leader Manish Tewari called it an "adventure" that would have "serious impact on national security" in the absence of any change in circumstances on the ground, while the Communist Party of India welcomed the visit saying it would take the dialogue process forward. The visit was also welcomed yesterday by the United States and United Nations.

Indian officials maintained Delhi has its "red lines". These included Pakistan's reach-out to Kashmiri separatists that derailed talks last year and the issue of terrorism. "We are not going into it with our eyes closed," said a source who did not want to be named.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'Modi gives Sharif a birthday surprise'. Print Edition | Subscribe