NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagrantly broke with diplomatic protocol to pay a surprise birthday visit to Pakistan leader Nawaz Sharif, betting his personal brand on his ability to revive a troubled relationship, Indian media and analysts said Saturday.
Spurning official talks in the capital Islamabad, India’s leader chose to make an intimate trip to Sharif’s ancestral residence near Lahore Friday, where he was celebrating his birthday and the wedding of his granddaughter.
A source present in the meeting said the leaders of the nuclear-armed arch-rival nations “chatted like old friends” as they ate vegetarian food, with the Indian premier telling Sharif, “Your sincerity is beyond doubt”.
Modi’s stunning decision to drop in for talks with Pakistan’s leader—something ex-premier Manmohan Singh failed to achieve in ten years of power—was roundly welcomed in India where it was seen as a highly calculated personal gamble.
“Modi has made clear he is willing to risk political capital to make peace,” the Indian Express newspaper said in a largely glowing editorial.
The visit, announced by Modi on Twitter, gave the appearance of being spontaneous, with Sharif’s foreign affairs adviser not able to reach Lahore in time. However, a senior Pakistan official told Agence France-Presse that security had been planned several days in advance.
While Indian media suggested Modi was the driving force behind the visit, a Pakistan official told Agence France-Presse it was Islamabad’s idea to arrange a meeting ahead of formal diplomatic talks set for January.
“The goal behind this meeting was to humanize the other side by arranging a visit involving close family members,” said the official, adding that some of Sharif’s cabinet members had opposed the visit.
Television polls suggested the majority of India’s public welcomed the development while newspapers praised the decision to avoid the weight of expectation by staging an informal, unannounced meeting.
“Traditional build-up to an Indian PM’s visit to Pakistan would have seen different interest groups bringing all kinds of pressure to bear,” The Times of India said.
Yet members of the opposition Congress party denounced the “unpredictable” act saying it lacked gravitas, with some complaining that such an important meeting should not have been announced on Twitter.