NEW DELHI (Hindustan Times): At 1.30 pm on December 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly called external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj from Kabul.
The PM had delivered an emotional speech in the Afghan Parliament to a standing ovation with President Ashraf Ghani and his predecessor Hamid Karzai later lauding Modi for its rich content. The PM told Swaraj that he had called Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to wish him on his 66th birthday, only to learn that his granddaughter was getting married. He told Swaraj that Sharif asked him to visit Lahore to break bread with him (“sukhe-sukhe kyon jaa rahen hai aap”) en-route to Delhi.
Apparently, Swaraj reminded the PM that there was no preparation for his visit and even the Indian high commissioner TCA Raghavan was in Islamabad. But Modi replied that he had decided to have tea with Sharif as he believed something good was going to come out of the visit.
While the Congress leadership has called the surprise visit a stunt, the decision to stop in Pakistan was a diplomatic masterstroke coming from a supremely confident PM and is a part of his ambitious plan to promote regionalism under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc). The Lahore visit was also driven by the personal chemistry between the two PMs with Modi indebted to Sharif for attending his swearing-in ceremony in 2014 on short notice. They had also exchanged notes about each other’s families during earlier interactions.
Since he took over as PM, Modi has had plans to push Saarc to the level of European Union and Asean. Leaders of these two associations visit each other at a short notice and drive the grouping on trust and prosperity. The PM’s brand of diplomacy has no time for protocol or niceties as he pushes the envelope with each country independently and not at the cost of other.
He is known to use his personal equations with his foreign counterparts and confront the problems at hand rather than run around in diplomatic circles. Chinese President Xi Jinping had a first-hand experience of Modi’s now famous straight talk on September 17, 2014, on the standoff between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at Chumar in the Eastern Ladakh sector.
Apparently, Modi told Xi that the PLA’s stubbornness in Chumar indicated that either the intrusion had sanction of the Chinese political leadership or the army does not listen to them. The result: The PLA moved back within a week.
It is evident that Modi invests a lot in bilateral relationships and does a lot of homework before important summit meetings. Last week, he brought the India-Russia special relationship back on track by forging a personal bond with President Vladimir Putin as the two leaders sat down for a two-and-a-half hour dinner without any official aides to thrash out bilateral issues.
The net result: India and Russia have decided to form a joint venture to develop, produce and export Kamov 226 helicopters under the ‘Make in India’ program. Even as the two leaders exchanged notes on Ukraine and ISIS, Putin was ready to offer another nuclear attack submarine after the lease of the present one with the Indian Navy expires in 2022. While India expressed its readiness to acquire the Russian S-400 air defense system, the latter has offered to build 12 nuclear reactors in Andhra Pradesh.
While Modi’s detractors criticize him for spending too much time traveling to 28 countries this year, the fact is that Indian diplomacy under his leadership is today seen as proactive and result-oriented. The India-Pakistan engagement sparked off by November 30 meeting in Paris between Modi and Sharif has yielded dividends with border firing dropping dramatically in Jammu and Kashmir and Islamabad willing to move on the 26/11 case and its perpetrator the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terror group.
The Lahore bonhomie is expected to lead to a productive foreign secretary dialogue with all outstanding issues including Kashmir on the table and also ensure that the Saarc summit next year is not held hostage to the bumpy ties between India and Pakistan, as it had happened in the past.