INDIA’S Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise “goodwill” visit to Pakistan this evening (December 25), with the first such trip in a decade seen as a step towards normalising ties between the neighbours.
Modi, who announced the trip via Twitter while in Kabul, met his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, who was celebrating his birthday in Lahore and the wedding of a grand-daughter, for a two-and-a-half hour visit seen by analysts as a positive step.
A meeting of their top diplomats is now set for January in Islamabad, indicating a potential thaw in ties between the countries.
Television footage showed an Indian Air Force jumbo jet land at Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport in the late afternoon on Friday, moments after Sharif himself arrived by helicopter.
The Pakistani prime minister, flanked by his cabinet ministers, received Modi on the tarmac where military officers lined up along a red carpet.
Both leaders wore their national dress and made their way to Sharif’s helicopter, which flew them to the Pakistani leader’s palatial residence south of the city.
They were seen smiling as they walked alongside each other and chatted in Sharif’s living room.
“So, you have finally come,” Sharif told Modi, according to a Pakistani foreign ministry official who was at the meeting.
“Yes, absolutely. I am here,” Modi replied, according to the official.
Modi phoned Sharif earlier in the day to wish him on his birthday and asked if he could make a stop in Pakistan on his way home, Pakistan’s top diplomat, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry, told reporters.
“And the PM said to him, ‘Please come, you are our guest, please come and have tea with me’,” he said.
It was Sharif’s 66th birthday and the family home was festooned with lights for his grand-daughter’s wedding tomorrow (December 26). Modi and Sharif talked for about 90 minutes and shared an early evening meal.
“Among the decisions taken was that ties between the two countries would be strengthened and also people-to-people contact would be strengthened so that the atmosphere can be created in which the peace process can move forward,” Chaudhry said.
Shortly thereafter, Modi was seen off by Sharif at the airport.
Chaudhry later told a news conference that it was a “purely goodwill visit”.
“Both leaders agreed that it was extremely important that the leaders of both countries should understand each other’s point of view so that the doors of prosperity could open for their people,” Chaudhry said.
Senior Indian officials and politicians also spoke positively of the meeting, with foreign ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup tweeting that the meeting had set a “positive spirit in the neighbourhood”.
Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, meanwhile, tweeted: “Neighbours’ relations should be like this.”
A close aide to Modi said the visit was a spontaneous decision by the prime minister and national security adviser Ajit Doval, and that it should not be seen as a sudden shift in India’s position.
“But yes, it’s a clear signal that active engagement can be done at a quick pace,” the aide said, declining to be identified.
The last visit to Pakistan by an Indian prime minister was in 2004 by then leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is credited with bringing about a thaw in relations with Islamabad.
Modi and Sharif have had a stop-start diplomatic relationship since the Indian prime minister’s surprise invitation to Sharif to his inauguration in May 2014.
Initial optimism about a revival of ties was short-lived as the two countries traded heavy fire across Kashmir which claimed dozens of lives on both sides.
But this month, they agreed to resume high-level talks that would cover peace and security as well as territorial disputes, including over Kashmir.
Earlier today, in a speech to the Afghan parliament, Modi urged closer cooperation between India, Pakistan and other neighbours over Afghanistan.
He also made a veiled reference to Pakistan on the issue of cross-border terrorism in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan will succeed only when terrorism no longer flows across the border, when nurseries and sanctuaries of terrorism are shut, and their patrons are no longer in business,” Modi said.
India’s main opposition Congress party, however, was quick to criticise Modi’s “irresponsible” decision.
In Pakistan, opposition senator Sherry Rehman said that while most Pakistanis backed better ties, parliament had not been consulted and it was unclear what concessions Islamabad was ready to make.
“It’s a small step because we don’t know what kind of sustainable progress is based around it. We don’t know if this is more than a grand gesture,” she said.