Indian prime minister Narendra Modi sought to reset New Delhi’s fraught relations with its neighbour Pakistan on Friday by surprising citizens of both countries with a personal visit to the home of his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif.
In a bold gesture that reflects his personalised approach to foreign policy, Mr Modi made the unexpected visit on his way back home to India from a visit to Russia via Kabul. After landing in Lahore, he flew by helicopter to the ancestral home of Mr Sharif, who was celebrating his granddaughter’s wedding.
The visit — the first by an Indian prime minister to Pakistan since a regional summit in 2004 — was described as “unofficial” and a reflection of the bond between the two leaders, who struck a rapport when they met during Mr Modi’s 2014 inaugural celebrations.
But the images of Mr Modi and Mr Sharif walking hand-in-hand has raised new hopes for the sputtering bilateral peace process between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
“Caveats about past history aside, no matter how you slice it, #ModiInLahore is a seminal and milestone moment for the Subcontinent. Bravo,” tweeted Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at The Wilson Centre, the Washington DC-based think-tank.
In his own tweet, Mr Modi likened the visit to a social call on friends, though official said the two men spent about an hour in bilateral talks. “Spent a warm evening with Sharif and family at the Sharif family home. Nawaz Sahab’s birthday and granddaughter’s marriage made it a double celebration,” he tweeted after returning to India.
Analyst said Mr Modi’s gesture might set a new tone for prickly relations. “Real issues can’t be discussed at meetings like #Lahore. But these improve environment and give cues to the negotiators and diplomatic Sherpas,” Shekar Gupta, a senior Indian journalist, tweeted.
Praveen Swami, strategic affairs editor of the Indian Express, told Indian television visit implied that Mr Modi “has staked his political capital on the peace process” with India’s neighbour.
The foreign secretaries of the two countries are expected to meet next month.
Since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars, and come to the brink of a fourth, mostly over the fate of the Muslim-majority province of Kashmir. India has also repeatedly accused Pakistan of sponsoring terrorist attacks, and insurgency in India.
But analysts said optimism over resolving outstanding had to be tempered by memories of the past, when dramatic gestures raised hopes of breakthroughs in relations, only to be quickly dashed, often by tensions within Pakistan between the civilian and military leaders over relations with India.
Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee sought to make peace with Pakistan’s civilian administration — then too led by Mr Sharif — in 1996, and backed his aspiration with the dramatic gesture of riding to Pakistan on a newly launched bus service between the two countries.
But the fledgling peace process was sent into disarray when the Pakistani military sent fighters to infiltrate high-altitude Himalayan peaks in Indian-held Kashmir, which led to heavy fighting as the Indian army sought to dislodge the fighters and retake the strategic heights.
Prime minister Manmohan Singh also sought to normalise relations with Pakistan, but the process was then abruptly halted by the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, in which 166 people were killed and 300 injured by 10 Pakistanis from the Islamist militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba.
India has long accused Islamabad of failing to act to curb such extremist groups.
Hopes for a rapprochement in India-Pakistan relations were also raised after Mr Modi’s inauguration in 2014 with Mr Sharif one of many regional leaders invited for the swearing-in ceremony. But India abruptly cancelled planned peace talks, angered by the invitation of the Pakistani High Commissioner to India to Kashmiri separatists for “consultations” before the dialogue.