By Krishna N. Das and James Mackenzie
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will make a surprise stopover at Pakistan to meet his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, on Friday, in what will be an Indian’s premier’s first visit to the arch rival in more than a decade.
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 distrust.
Modi, who inaugurated a new parliament complex built with Indian help in the Afghan capital, Kabul, spoke with Sharif on Friday to wish him happy birthday. He is 66.
“Looking forward to meeting PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore today afternoon, where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi,” Modi tweeted.
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 India was ready to take two steps forward if Pakistan took one to improve ties between the countries that have fought three wars since 1947, two of them over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which both claim in full but rule in part.
The opposition Congress Party called Modi’s visit irresponsible and said that nothing had changed to warrant warming of ties between the nuclear-armed rivals that only in August cancelled scheduled high-level talks after ceasefire violations across the border.
“If the decision is not preposterous then it is utterly ridiculous,” Congress leader Manish Tewari said.
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj went to Pakistan this month – the first such visit in three years – after Modi and Sharif’s meeting in Paris.
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 its links to 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, India’s traditional rival in the region, 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 future, not light the flame of conflict,” he told lawmakers in Kabul, adding that Afghanistan could never “serve the designs of others”.
Modi said that regional support would be vital to bring peace and control terrorism.
“We know that Afghanistan’s success will require the cooperation and support of each of its neighbours,” 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.”