Narendra Modi’s Christmas gift to the subcontinent: A surprise trip to Pakistan

An Indian prime minister visited Pakistan after 11 years.
An Indian prime minister visited Pakistan after 11 years.
Image: Press Information Department via AP
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Indian prime ministers aren’t in the habit of breezily dropping into Pakistan for a tea-time chat with their counterparts across the border, but Narendra Modi has boldly announced that he isn’t going to play by the book—and how.

On Dec. 25, after a quick stop to Kabul on the way back from Russia, Modi delivered a diplomatic bombshell by way of a surprise visit to Pakistan. The last Indian prime minister to make a trip to Pakistan was Atal Bihari Vajpayee in early 2004.

The only warning that Modi supplied was a pithy tweet at lunchtime on Christmas.

At Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport, Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, received Modi with a warm bear hug before the two swiftly walked from the Indian leader’s jet to an awaiting helicopter. After a short flight to Sharif’s ancestral house in Raiwind, just south of Lahore, the two leaders sat down for an hour and a half over tea and snacks.

There has been a perceptible thaw in India-Pakistan relations over recent weeks. The national security advisors of both countries met in Bangkok earlier in December, following a brief conversation between the two prime ministers at the sidelines of the COP21 climate change summit in Paris. Shortly after, Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj traveled to Islamabad for a summit on Afghanistan.

Modi’s whistle-stop trip is nonetheless a bolt from the blue. So, how did it happen?

The two diplomatic establishments are asserting that it was entirely spontaneous. Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Aizaz Chaudhry, says the trip materialized after Modi phoned Sharif to wish him well on his birthday, and then wondered if he could fly down on his way back to New Delhi, Reuters reported.

“Please come, you are our guest, please come and have tea with me,” Sharif reportedly replied.

At the meeting, according to Chaudhry, the two leaders decided that ”ties between the two countries would be strengthened and also people-to-people contact would be strengthened so that the atmosphere can be created in which the peace process can move forward.”

In all, it was a whirlwind of a Christmas for Modi—and the Indian subcontinent. The big question now is whether the Christmas Day diplomacy will deliver the goods. But this much is clear: Modi isn’t going to play by the staid rules of bilateral diplomacy.