Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan leader Nawaz Sharif has been broadly welcomed in India as a daring personal gamble to reset troubled relations, reports said Saturday.
Spurning official talks in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, India's leader made an intimate trip to Sharif's ancestral residence near Lahore Friday, where he was celebrating his birthday and the wedding of his granddaughter.
A source present in the meeting said the leaders of the arch-rival nations "chatted like old friends," with the Indian premier telling Sharif, "your sincerity is beyond doubt," according to Agence France-Presse.
"Modi loves to spring surprises -- he's disruptive, he's setting aside old taboos," Neelam Deo, a director at Gateway House think-tank in Mumbai told AFP.
"He's personalized diplomacy to an extent we haven't seen in India since (India's first prime minister) Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s," she said.
"Modi has made clear he is willing to risk political capital to make peace," the Indian Express newspaper said, warning that any future terrorist attacks traced to Pakistan would invite "savage criticism".
The visit, announced by Modi on Twitter, gave the appearance of being spontaneous, with Sharif's foreign affairs adviser not able to reach Lahore in time. However, a senior Pakistan official told AFP that security had been planned days in advance.
While Indian media suggested Modi was the driving force behind the visit, a Pakistan official said it was Islamabad's idea to arrange a meeting ahead of formal diplomatic talks set for January.
"The goal behind this meeting was to humanize the other side by arranging a visit involving close family members," said the official, adding that some of Sharif's cabinet had opposed the visit.
Television polls suggested most Indians welcomed the move. Newspapers praised Modi's decision to stage an informal "stopover" on the way back from Kabul, according to AFP.
"Traditional build-up to an Indian PM's visit to Pakistan would have seen different interest groups bringing all kinds of pressure to bear," The Times of India said.
The last visit to Pakistan by an Indian prime minister was in 2004 by then leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is credited with bringing about a thaw in relations with Islamabad.
‘A mere photo shoot’
But members of the opposition Congress party denounced the "unpredictable" act, with some saying such an important meeting should not have been announced on Twitter.
Others questioned whether the newfound friendship would translate into concrete progress on peace. In Pakistani-administered Kashmir, where cross-border shelling has claimed dozens of lives since 2014, the mood was skeptical.
Aziz Ahmed, a refugee from Indian-controlled Kashmir called the meeting a "mere photo session", according to AFP.
"Such meetings have been taking place in the past, but have proven useless after some time," he said in Muzaffarabad, capital of the Pakistan-controlled territory.
Modi and Sharif have had a stop-start diplomatic relationship since the Indian premier's surprise decision to invite Sharif to his inauguration in May 2014.
A brief meeting on November 30 between the two leaders on the sidelines of the UN climate summit in Paris, followed by talks between their national security advisers in Bangkok, appeared to have broken the ice.
Backing from the top
According to sources in Islamabad, one factor in the bilateral thaw is the appointment of a recently retired general as national security adviser of Pakistan – a move that has given its military renewed confidence to support a dialogue with India.
"This round is different because there is backing from the top where it matters ... the army chief is himself on board," a top diplomat told Reuters.
Pakistan’s Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif is said to be close to the new national security adviser, recently retired general Naseer Khan Janjua, who in October replaced civilian Sartaj Aziz.
Many saw the move as strengthening the army's hand in talks with India, with the military remaining wary of a civilian government giving too much away.
Previous attempts to resume talks between the two sides have been postponed time after time, mostly due to India’s insistence that the focus of discussion must be terrorism. India accuses Pakistan-based militants for masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 166 dead.
By contrast, Pakistan says the disputed territory of Kashmir is the paramount topic.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947 and a lasting peace deal has so far proved elusive, with deadly violence still flaring in disputed Kashmir.