Happy birthday drop-by diplomacy: Modi’s spur-of-the-moment spin on visit

Happy birthday drop-by diplomacy: Modi’s spur-of-the-moment spin on visit

By: || Updated: 26 Dec 2015 08:33 AM
New Delhi: Startling undercover midwifery between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has given us this yuletide day the gift of a new genre of conducting neighbourly ties - if you're passing by, just drop by, see what comes up over tea and savouries, leave aside, if only for the moment, the unsavouries.
Of all the celebrity anniversaries observed today on either side of the India-Pakistan fence - Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Nawaz Sharif, Madan Mohan Malaviya and Atal Bihari Vajpayee - the one contrived between the two Prime Ministers has become the most remarked upon, even celebrated.
Jaws dropped in disbelief, experts were at a loss how to describe Modi's "drop-by" in Lahore en route home from Moscow and Kabul. These optics were no illusion, but what were they? Personal? Official? Casual? Political? Perhaps none of that and all of that.
The one description Modi's detour was structured not to defy was drop-dead dramatic - who's to tell whether Modi's theatrical sunset landing in Lahore will prove momentary or turn momentous, but as a gambit it lacked neither for surprise nor spectacle.
From the moment Modi put out a tweet from Camp Kabul that he was looking forward to meeting Sharif in Lahore "where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi", he had global attention riveted, the subcontinent seduced.
Was this really only about stopping over to say "Happy birthday, Nawaz", or could it also be about birthing a new future for the subcontinent?
The jagged history of ties imposes caution. Hope has sooner been snuffed than allowed a breathing lease.
The exhilaration of Vajpayee's bus ride into Lahore in 1999 was quickly exterminated along the heights of Kargil that summer. Agra in 2001 was a much-vaunted summit but it became apparent over two days how wanting in trust India and Pakistan were.
There is little evidence something has intervened now to surmount the usual deficits between New Delhi and Islamabad.
Modi's foreign office and party propagandists were intent on putting a "spur-of-the-moment" spin on what may have taken weeks of arduous and stealthy scripting. Modi pulled the phone off his cuff in Kabul this morning to wish Sharif, Sharif said why don't you "drop by", Lahore's only on your way home, and Modi said what a good idea!
Spontaneity is not unknown in India-Pakistan ties, cantankerous exchanges along the Line of Control are proof. But there are clues to suggest today's path-breaker between Kabul and Delhi was not a happy accident but the consequence of artful planning.
Exactly a week ago, Sharif had issued an unprovoked diktat to close aides and ministers not to speak against India. They were only to make statements that "encourage peace and promote peace".
A few days later, the Pakistani high commissioner to Delhi, Abdul Basit, quietly left for home; clearly he had been summoned back to be part of the preparations to receive Modi.
Around the same time, government sources in Delhi suggest, the Indian high commission in Islamabad was "sounded off" on a possible "VVIP touchdown".
Never an easy ride, India-Pakistan relations have been on a rough roller coaster between Modi and Sharif.
Since Sharif arrived in Delhi to attend Modi's inauguration in May 2014, bilateral winds have blown hot and blown cold, and often ceased to blow altogether.
To the public eye, the two remained frosty with each other at the Saarc leaders' meet in Kathmandu last November. The summit took place in the backdrop of unceasing hostilities across the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir; the two leaders shook hands for the cameras, no more.
(Journalist Barkha Dutt has revealed in her newly released book, This Unquiet Land, that steel industrialist Sajjan Jindal hosted a private meeting between the two at Kathmandu. Jindal was in Lahore today, ahead of Modi's arrival. His presence, among other things, became the basis for the Congress to berate Modi's Pakistan overture as aimed at "promoting private business interests" rather than compacting good nation-to-nation ties.)
From Kathmandu, it took half a year for the formal frost to break, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation at Ufa in Russia. It was decided the national security advisers of the two nations would resume dialogue.
That wasn't to be. Taking exception to Pakistan's decision to speak to Kashmiri Hurriyat leaders, India angrily stoppered the talks. Another indignant lull followed.
Thereafter, with no public preface, Modi and Sharif flashed on-screen from the Paris climate change summit late last month, in a deep but seemingly unplanned pull-away powwow in the conference hall.
The first consequence of that popped up in Bangkok the following week with news that the two national security advisers, Ajit Doval and Nasser Khan Janjua, had met --- a third-country assignation with no risk of the Hurriyat casting its disruptive shadow.
Then on, exchanges have moved apace, and almost against the run of play at home. The BJP and its "cultural" fronts embody a vociferously anti-Pakistan ethos, after all. Its leaders have wanted Modi critics "banished" to Pakistan, they have taken easy recourse to using "Pakistani" as a word of abuse for detractors.
Pakistani artistes have been chased around and disallowed a stage in India. Hostile opposition to any engagement on the cricket field, even at neutral venues, persists.
There is also the right hand side of the menu that bonhomie can momentarily obscure to the eye but not obliterate --- Siachen, Sir Creek. Did someone say Kashmir? Much has to square up and straighten if meaningful outcomes are to be achieved.
But an effort at rebuilding is visible. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj's Islamabad visit to attend the multilateral Heart of Asia summit was turned into a high-profile bilateral production whose centrepiece were the announcements that the foreign secretaries would meet this January and Modi would visit Pakistan in 2016.
Modi, though, was working on a shorter timeline. It is moot if today will turn out a dream day for relations between India and Pakistan. But Modi has already lived out a dream subcontinental day. Or purloined it.
It was, after all, his predecessor Manmohan Singh's desperate wish to have "breakfast in Amristar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul". What remained Singh's forbidden fancy has now turned to feather in Modi's cap, although he has done the reverse journey. He only had to drop by in Lahore to pick it up.

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