LAHORE: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise stopover in Pakistan on Friday to meet his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, the first time an Indian premier has visited the rival nation in over a decade.
Sharif hugged Modi after he landed at the airport in the eastern city of Lahore, state television showed. A spokesman at the Pakistani prime minister’s office told Reuters the two leaders would discuss a range of bilateral issues, including the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Modi was on his way home after a visit to Russia. He stopped off in the Afghanistan capital Kabul earlier on Friday.
Modi and Sharif resumed high-level contacts with a brief conversation at climate change talks in Paris late last month, part of efforts to restart a peace dialogue plagued by militant attacks and long-standing distrust between the nuclear-armed rivals.
Modi, who inaugurated a new parliament complex built with Indian help in Kabul, spoke to Sharif earlier on Friday to wish him on his 66th birthday.
“Looking forward to meeting PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore today afternoon, where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi,” Modi tweeted.
A close aide to Modi said it was a spontaneous decision taken by the prime minister and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, and that it should not be seen as a sudden shift in India’s position.
“But yes, it’s a clear signal that active engagement can be done at a quick pace,” the aide said, declining to be identified.
Mistrust between India and Pakistan runs deep and in Afghanistan many believe that Islamabad sponsors the Taliban insurgency to weaken the Kabul government and limit the influence of India.
Pakistan rejects the accusation but it has struggled to turn around perceptions in Afghanistan, where social media users sent out a stream of glowing commentary on Modi’s visit, contrasting the parliament building with the destruction wrought by Taliban suicide bombers.
Nalin Kohli, a spokesman for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, said in New Delhi that India was ready to take two steps forward if Pakistan took one to improve ties. The countries have fought three wars since 1947, two of them over Kashmir, the divided Himalayan territory that both countries claim in full.
The opposition Congress Party called Modi’s visit irresponsible and said that nothing had happened to warrant warming of ties between the rivals. Scheduled high-level talks between the two were canceled in August after ceasefire violations across the border.
“If the decision is not preposterous then it is utterly ridiculous,” Congress leader Manish Tewari said.
Opening the parliament building in Kabul, Modi pledged India’s support for the Afghan government and urged regional powers, including Pakistan, to work together to foster peace.
The building is the latest symbol of a longstanding diplomatic effort by New Delhi to cultivate links with Afghanistan.
As well as the parliament building, India is also supplying three Russian-made Mi-35 helicopters to Afghanistan’s small air force, adding badly needed capacity to provide close air support to its hard-pressed security forces.
Without referring directly to Pakistan, Modi said that some had seen “sinister designs in our presence” in Afghanistan.
“India is here to contribute, not to compete; to lay the foundation of the future, not light the flame of conflict,” he told lawmakers in Kabul, adding that Afghanistan could never “serve the designs of others”.
Modi said regional support would be vital for peace in Afghanistan.
“We know that Afghanistan’s success will require the cooperation and support of each of its neighbors,” he said. “And all of us in the region – India, Pakistan, Iran and others – must unite in trust and cooperation behind the common purpose and in recognition of our common destiny.”