Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised people in India and Pakistan with his impromptu, unplanned and unannounced stopover in Lahore this evening, on his way back to India after a fruitful visit to Russia and Afghanistan.
One has to hand it to Modi that he is a man with an independent mind and someone who follows his heart rather than protocol. He has shown this quality several times since taking over as PM.
PM’s 90 minute surprise stopover in Lahore!
The day was auspicious on several counts; it was Christmas, it was Qaid-e-Azam’s birthday, former Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s birthday and guess what, it was Pak PM Nawaz Sharif’s birthday too, when Indian PM landed this evening in Lahore, and headed straight for Nawaz Sharif’s family farmhouse in Raiwind. The occasion was not just Nawaz Sharif’s birthday, but also the wedding reception of his granddaughter Mehrunisa.
PM Modi was very warmly received by Nawaz Sharif at the Lahore airport with a Guard of Honour and then they flew by chopper to the helipad near PM Sharif’s farmhouse, from where they drove together in the same car, in yet another sign of their growing warmth and personal equation.
Path breaking yes, surprise – well not really!
So, while the 90-minute stopover in Lahore by an Indian PM is certainly a first, does it really come as a surprise? It shouldn’t, for Modi is a man who walks his own path and more often than not, it has worked in his favour. And the international community seems to be lapping it all up.
Several questions await both PMs
Behind the symbolic bonhomie between the two leaders in their meeting today, is there a real breakthrough in relations between India and Pakistan happening? And, was this stopover really impromptu? Did this visit have the blessings of the Pakistani Army? And was RSS kept in the loop on this supposedly surprising stopover? Is the RSS with Modi in going forward with the dialogue process with Pakistan? Is Pakistan going to now act on 26/11 case and what is its stand on terror, especially in the context of Jammu and Kashmir?
Anyone who understands diplomacy and the role back channel talks play in international relations, will realize that this visit today is not really an impromptu stopover, but part of a process that started quite some time back. Ever since relations with Pakistan ran into a stalemate on account of their insistence for talks with Hurriyat leaders and their attempt to include the Hurriyat as part of the dialogue process, Indo-Pak relations nosedived and the stalemate has since continued. But back channel talks has been going on through all this time, of course, with a bit of nudge from the US to both sides.
After Nawaz Sharif was forced to backtrack post Ufa, relations between the two countries remained in the cold. The Pakistani Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif’s visit to the US, Modi’s brief meeting with Nawaz Sharif in Paris, the talks between NSAs of both countries in Bangkok, and most recent meeting in Pakistan between Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Advisor to Pak PM, Sartaj Aziz, have all been part of an attempt from both sides to restart the dialogue process and focus on the economic agenda, while keeping contentious issues like Kashmir and terror for back channel negotiations.
Earlier, India’s stance was to push for people-to-people contact, and encourage cultural and sport exchanges between the two nations as a build-up to a favourable platform for talks at the political level, but having experienced Pakistani Army’s behind-the-scene spoiler role, this time around, India has been insisting on peace on the border as a pre-requisite to talks, before opening people-to-people, cultural and sporting contacts.
So what has really changed and can this visit really open the dialogue process further?
The opposition in Pakistan didn’t have time to protest but majority seems to have welcomed Modi’s initiative of visiting Pakistan. However, back home, there has been protests from elements within VHP burning effigies, political parties like the Congress questioning the justification for PM’s initiative, Shiv Sena clearly opposing the initiative, and AAP expressing disappointment over lack of transparency behind the move.
So can this visit really be the turning point and a game changer? One would have to be a die-hard optimist to believe that. However, on the Indian side, there is a fair chance that the Modi has tacit approval from the RSS, while Nawaz Sharif has the green light from a reluctant army to restart the dialogue process. If true, then yes, this trip could well go down as an ice breaker and turning point in Indo-Pak relations, but only with tempered expectations.
Hype vs expectations
Too often, media on both sides has gone overboard with hype and over expectation that typically follows a high profile statement or a gesture like a handshake, when it comes to heads of state between the two countries. This time too, the trip will be overanalyzed and dissected on both sides, when perhaps what is needed is a pragmatic and mature media on both sides that adds to what both governments are trying to initiate.
One has to be realistic about expectations in that Pakistan cannot be expected to change its position overnight on Kashmir and on pushing militants across the border, nor will they hand over Hafeez Saeed, Lakhvi or Dawood to India, but it is very possible to build upon the economic agenda, people-to-people contact, cultural exchanges, and take up less contentious issues like resolving the Sir Creek issue, de-escalating Siachen and perhaps allow for back channel talks to proceed, away from the media glare, on terror and Kashmir.
The question is, will the hardliners on both sides allow that?