ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN —
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi staged an attention-grabbing moment with a tweet that he was going to “drop by” Lahore to meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his way home from a visit to Kabul.
Media in both India and Pakistan covered and analyzed the event for hours, long after the visit was over.
Sharif received Modi at the Lahore airport Friday, and the two leaders were flown by helicopter to Sharif’s sprawling residence in Raiwind, outside Lahore, for an hourlong meeting. Immediately afterward, Sharif saw Modi off at the airport.
“Spent a warm evening with Sharif family at their family home,” Modi tweeted after leaving Pakistan. “Nawaz Sahab's birthday & granddaughter's marriage made it a double celebration.”
Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, who attended the meeting, told reporters the discussions were held in “a cordial and positive atmosphere.”
He said the Indian prime minister had telephoned Sharif late Friday morning and expressed “his desire” to undertake the “goodwill” visit, and the Pakistani prime minister had welcomed the initiative as an important step to bring their rival nations closer.
Chaudhry said the two leaders agreed to carry forward the recently resumed bilateral dialogue and work together to establish good relations.
The visit, although termed personal, was the first to Pakistan by an Indian prime minister since 2004.
After months of tension, the two countries have seen a rapid diplomatic re-engagement recently, starting with a handshake and a brief private meeting between the prime ministers on the sidelines of the Paris climate summit.
Khurshid Kasuri, Pakistan’s former foreign minister, had anticipated such developments even when relations between the two countries seemed to be on the decline. In his book, Neither a Hawk nor a Dove, Kasuri wrote that Modi had no choice but to negotiate with Pakistan.
“There’s nothing new that Prime Minister Narendra Modi can try,” Kasuri said, adding that all else, including wars, had been tried, but to no avail.
Both countries' armies are ranked among the world's 10 largest by most measures. The two countries also have nuclear weapons and second-strike capabilities.
“So obviously a military solution is not on the table, at all,” Kasuri said. “It’s just not going to deliver anything.”
The reaction to this impromptu visit was mostly positive in Pakistan, with almost all opposition parties welcoming it, but only mixed in India.
India’s main opposition party, Congress, strongly criticized the prime minister for not confiding in Parliament.
"It is unfortunate that we get to know about the prime minister's visit through a tweet," Congress spokesperson Ajoy Kumar told the Indian news agency IANS.
Others, like K. Natwar Singh, India’s former external affairs minister, welcomed Modi’s trip as “an imaginative step” that would help advance the renewed dialogue between the two countries.
“If the Modi government talks, they are criticized. If they don’t talk, they are criticized. You can’t have it both ways,” Singh said.
Amanullah Memon, a professor of international relations at a private university in Islamabad, said he thought the visit would "play a significant role in improving ties between the two South Asian archrivals."
A close aide to Modi told Reuters that the visit was the result of 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.
This is not the first time Modi has made such a bold gesture. He invited Sharif to his inauguration, despite tense bilateral relations. Such gestures in the past, however, were followed by aggressive foreign policy decisions that led to heightened tensions.
Analysts said Modi realized that a hawkish attitude didn't deliver results and damaged his economic agenda, which depends on regional peace and stability. Of particular interest to India are possible trade routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Fears of war
Improved relations between India and Pakistan are a prime demand of the international community, which fears a nuclear war between the two. Many Western diplomats also blame India-Pakistan tensions for the lack of progress on Afghanistan, suggesting that Islamabad quietly supports the Afghan Taliban as a hedge against a pro-Indian government emerging in Kabul.
Diplomats like Singh, while welcoming Modi's visit to Pakistan, also warned against exaggerating its importance. They said substantive decisions would result only from sustained dialogue involving the political and military leadership of both sides.
Omar Abdullah is the former chief minister of Indian-held Kashmir, the disputed region that was the cause of multiple wars between the neighbors. In a tweet about Modi's visit, Abdullah said, "Indo-Pakistan relations have been plagued by knee-jerk reactions and a lack of consistency. Looking towards [the] two prime ministers to correct this this time."
While in Afghanistan earlier Friday, Modi addressed Afghan lawmakers and called for greater regional cooperation to help the war-ravaged country overcome its security and economic challenges.
“When Afghanistan becomes a haven of peace and hub for the flow of ideas, commerce, energy and investment in the region, we will also prosper together. ... That is why I hope that Pakistan will become a bridge between South Asia and Afghanistan and beyond," Modi said. "I hope that the day will come soon when energy from Central Asia will power prosperity in our region.”
'India is here to contribute'
Modi also tried to allay fears that Pakistan and India are engaged in a proxy war on Afghan soil in their bid to influence developments in Afghanistan.
“You know that India is here to contribute, not to compete; to lay the foundations of the future, not light the flame of conflict; to rebuild lives, not destroy a nation,” he said.
He said Afghanistan's success would require support of each of its neighbors. In that list he included not just India and Pakistan, but also Iran "and others" in the region as Afghanistan fights terrorism and works to establish a strong government.
The recent thaw in India-Pakistan ties is seen as key to promoting regional peace and economic stability.
Pakistani, Afghan and Indian leaders gathered in Turkmenistan this month to jointly open construction work on a multibillion-dollar pipeline for transporting natural gas through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.
VOA's Ayaz Gul contributed to this report from Islamabad. Some material for this report came from AP and Reuters.