By Joanna Sugden
In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu wrote that “the key to victory is the ability to use surprise tactics.”
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is a man who knows how to spring diplomatic surprises.
He bookended 2015 with them.
In January, Mr. Modi broke with protocol to meet U.S. president, Barack Obama, on the tarmac in New Delhi, and on Christmas Day made a detour on the way back from Afghanistan to wish his counterpart in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif a happy birthday.
The gesture was viewed in the media in both countries variously as a highpoint in recently improving relations between the rival nations and a masterclass in diplomacy.
A column by Josy Joseph in the Hindu newspaper on Monday said that the “dramatic diplomacy” on Dec. 25 “may be the first clear admission from Prime Minister Narendra Modi that dealing with Pakistan is not a simple task.”
“It is the realization of the complexity of dealing with Pakistan that forced successive prime ministers to risk so much to engage with the neighbour, often without much success,” Mr. Joseph said.
In the piece, titled “The map of neighbourly outreach,” Mr. Joseph argued that after diplomatic relations with Pakistan had “nosedived to embarrassing childishness” over the summer when talks between the two sides were canceled, “Mr. Modi’s efforts over the past few weeks, to rekindle India-Russia bilateral ties and to reach out to Pakistan, are signs that the former Gujarat chief minister is now finally becoming the Indian prime minister.”
Chidanand Rajghatta in a piece titled “Beneath the Modi-Sharif lovefest” for the Times of India, saw a larger geopolitical context and argued that the meeting in Lahore “may be the first sign that Pakistan is decamping from the Saudi penumbra, and returning to–hold your breath–the Indian sphere of influence.”
“But there’s plenty of work remaining, and any celebration of Pakistan turning away from a less adventurous, religion-intoxicated, Saudi-influenced path will have to wait,” the author adds. “The signal has to come from Army Chief Raheel Sharif.”
In the Pakistani media, Mr. Modi’s surprise visit was viewed with a mix of mild skepticism and stunned appreciation.
Cyril Almeida writing in Dawn, one of Pakistan’s most popular English language dailies, said that Mr. Modi’s move was a smart one.
“If this blows up in his face, he can turn to the world and say, look, I tried. I put my reputation on the line. You just can’t trust Pakistanis,” Mr. Almeida wrote.
He argued though that Mr. Modi “had that excuse” when Mr. Sharif attended his inauguration in Delhi and failed to deliver peace after that olive branch.
In an un-bylined editorial titled “A pleasant surprise,” the Express Tribune said that “looking past the surprise and hyperbole, the visit of Prime Minister Modi and the obvious warmth of his reception by Prime Minister Sharif, looks more like considered statesmanship than political grandstanding.”
“How the relationship between these two men plays out, and how well or ill they are able to sell their aspirations to wary, cynical and mistrustful voters in two countries where the borders crackle with fire, is going to be crucial to the regional future,” the newspaper added. But, it said, powerful as the latest example of symbolism is, the two leaders need to move beyond it, “into the realms of hard bargains and clear decisions. A move we would warmly welcome.”
China said it was pleased that Pakistan and India were showing signs of greater trust.
Lu Kang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said that China welcomed “the latest development of the relationship between Pakistan and India.”
“As a neighbor and friend to both Pakistan and India, the Chinese side welcomes and supports, as it always does, their increase of mutual trust and pursuit of common development through dialogues,” Mr. Lu said in a news conference.
According to a report in the Times of India, as well as a hug, Mr. Modi also gave Mr. Sharif a candy-pink, peacock-style headdress for his birthday.
On Sunday, at his granddaughter’s wedding, Mr. Sharif wore it.
If that isn’t a sign of a growing friendship, we’re not sure what is.