More than 17 months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, the two met in the leaders’ lounge at the opera house here, where they exchanged greetings. This was their fifth meeting although there were no details about any substantive talks. Sources said that since it was the first occasion when the two leaders came across each other after Sharif’s surgery, Modi enquired about his health. “He also enquired about Sharif’s mother and his family”.
In May last year, Sharif and Modi had spoken before the Pakistan PM was wheeled in for cardiac surgery in London. Later, in July, Modi telephoned Sharif to wish him for Eid and a speedy recovery from surgery. Modi had also met Sharif’s family in Lahore, including his mother, when he had made a sudden stopover in Lahore in December 2015.
Before that Lahore visit, the two sides had similarly met in the leaders’ lounge in Paris, on the sidelines of the Climate Change summit in November 2015. While it was then portrayed as just a short chat, that had set the ball rolling for talks between the NSAs and, thereafter, the resumption of the comprehensive bilateral dialogue process — only to be scuttled by the Pathankot terror attack early January 2016.
While Thursday was capped with exchange of pleasantries, the entire day was plagued with the question: Will they, will they not?
On Day 1, however, there was no “structured bilateral meeting” — MEA officials reiterated that there was no request for a meeting from either side. Modi landed at the Astana airport on Thursday afternoon and headed straight to meet the host, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the man who has been ruling the country for almost three decades now. Moments before he arrived at Akorda, the Kazakh President’s Presidential palace, Indian officials, who were waiting for Modi to arrive, noticed Sharif leaving Akorda.
First opportunity missed. They could have crossed paths in the halls of Akorda, a name for the Nazarbayev’s palace borrowed from Kazakh history which means the King’s palace. The waiting Indian media got wind that Sharif’s hotel was the Ramada Plaza. They rushed there.
In the lobby, the Embassy of Pakistan had put up a small stall — with orange juice for the thirsty. And some literature for Pakistan’s pavilion at the grand Expo 2017. The lobby was teeming with Indian and Pakistani journalists. Sharif arrives at the Ramada Plaza, 2.9 km from the Radisson where Modi is staying.The Indian media shouted three questions as the Kazakh security body-blocked them. “Will you be meeting PM Modi”? No response, Sharif turned, smiled and waved. “Will Pakistan stop exporting terror?” Again no response, Sharif keeps waving.
“Kya aapki PM Modi se mulaqat hogi?” Sharif walks ahead to the lift. He is quickly ushered inside an elevator. The entire walk lasts about two minutes, eight seconds. His Foreign Affairs advisor, Sartaj Aziz, is left behind in the melee. Questions are thrown at him as well: will there be a meeting? Do you want to say something? He, too, does not respond, and is ushered into the elevator. A few hours later, Sharif comes out again from one of the elevators to leave for the cultural performance at the opera house being hosted by the Kazakh President.
While he walks to the car, “Sir, aap PM Modi se milenge kya?” He again smiles and waves back. Questions are repeated, but not a word. A Pakistani journalist, who has travelled with the PM on his special plane, throws the bait: his smile should be interpreted as “positive” reply. At the opera house, before the cultural show, the two leaders met in the leaders’ lounge where the exchange took place, sources said. Once the performance began, however, the two, according to officials, sat in the front row but quite far apart.
After the cultural performance, which included a kathak routine by a Bangalore group, the leaders went in for a more private dinner without any officials. There were only interpreters during dinner and suspense remains on whether they met or spoke during dinner time. For the record, Ministry of External Affairs’ official spokesperson Gopal Baglay said, at the end of the day, “There were couple of occasions when leaders were at the same place. PM met Sharif or not, that we are not aware. We have to ask the Prime Minister. I will ask him and update you.”
However, the two leaders will participate in proceedings at the SCO plenary session on Friday, and will share the stage and the leaders’ lounge, where they will have ample opportunities to meet and talk. In the SCO Summit, India and Pakistan will be inducted as full members, an upgrade from the current observer status. After being inducted, the two leaders will also participate in the Astana Expo, a large business, social and cultural event organised by Kazakhstan, followed by dinner, and before Modi will fly out at around 11 pm IST. When asked whether there was pressure from China and Russia for a meeting, Baglay said that he is not aware of any such pressure. “PM had met President Putin a few days ago in St Petersburg, there was no such conversation.”