India welcomes rule-breaker Modi’s surprise Pakistan visit

New Delhi, December 26,

Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke with diplomatic protocol to pay a surprise visit to Pakistan leader Nawaz Sharif, betting his personal brand on his ability to reset troubled relations, Indian media and analysts said today.

Spurning official talks in the capital Islamabad, India’s leader chose instead to make an intimate trip to Sharif’s ancestral residence near Lahore yesterday, 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”.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947 and a lasting peace deal has so far proved elusive, with deadly violence still flaring in disputed Kashmir.

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 calculated personal gamble.

“Modi has made clear he is willing to risk political capital to make peace,” the Indian Express newspaper said, warning that any future terrorist attacks traced to Pakistan would invite “savage criticism”.

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 AFP that security had been planned days in advance. While Indian media suggested Modi was the driving force behind the visit, a Pakistan official said it was Islamabad’s idea to arrange a meeting ahead of formal diplomatic talks set for January.

“The goal behind this meeting was to humanise the other side by arranging a visit involving close family members,” said the official, adding that some of Sharif’s cabinet had opposed the visit.

Television polls suggested most Indians welcomed the development while newspapers praised Modi’s decision to avoid weighty expectations by staging an informal “stopover” on the way back from Kabul.

“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.