Modi’s unannounced Lahore visit: Masterstroke or attempt to promote crony capitalism?


Rifat Jawaid

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sudden announcement on the micro-blogging site twitter that he was stopping over in Lahore on his way back to Delhi from Kabul has created a huge political controversy in India.

The announcement sent journalists, social media users and political analysts into a frenzy as none of them expected Modi to do this ‘unthinkable’ act.

Some journalists in Pakistan even complained on live TV why they had not been kept in the loop.

But questions are already being asked about how sudden this visit of Modi to Pakistan actually is. PM Modi, it seems, has placed his own spokespersons into a quandary. The party spokespersons appeared utterly confused while desperately defending an act, which not so long ago, they vehemently opposed, mocked and despised.

Nalin Kohli, the BJP spokespersons, appeared completely clueless on whether it was a planned trip or, as he put it, it was just a case of two prime ministers ‘picking up the phone’ and Modi saying ‘I’m on my way back to Delhi. Are you available for a quick chat in Lahore. Sharif says, why not. And the trip to Lahore happens.’

Other die-hard Modi fans urged media to not remember the inconsistencies in his foreign policy and series of spectacular U-turns vis-a-vis Pakistan since 26 May, 2014. Tarun Vijay, who edits the saffron party’s mouthpiece Organiser, said Modi-Sharif meeting was a Bulle Shah- A Pakistani sufi- moment.

Modi’s rivals have been simply too nimble-footed to dig out the old tweets of Modi and his supporters, adopting extremely hawkish approach towards Pakistan in the past.

Congress’ Manish Tiwari tweeted implying that the meeting between Modi and Sharif may not have been a spontaneous affair after all. He informed that a ‘steel oligarch’ was already in Lahore to facilitate this meeting.

This steel oligarch in question is Sajjan Jindal, brother of former Congress MP Naveen Jindal.  Sajjan Jindal on Friday tweeted a photo saying he was in Lahore to wish Sharif on the latter’s birthday.

There are reports that Sajjan had been instrumental in facilitating the meeting between the two leaders for over 24 hours. Sajjan’s friendship with the Sharif family goes a long way as Sharif family owned Ittefaq Group too has been one of the largest steel companies in Pakistan.

In May last year, when Sharif arrived in India to attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, he had reportedly dropped in at Sajjan Jindal’s residence to have a cup of tea, triggering a huge controversy back in Pakistan.

Sajjan Jindal was also reportedly involved in facilitating an hour-long meeting between Modi and Sharif over a year ago. Remember, the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in Nepal? Contrary to popular media reporting that Modi had even refused to look at his Pakistani counterpart while crossing each other’s path in Kathmandu, it emerged that the two leaders had, in fact, held  secret talks for over an hour. And it was possible only because of Sajjan.

These stunning revelations were made by veteran journalist Barkha Dutt in her book ‘ This Unquiet Land — Stories from India’s Fault Lines.’

Highlighting Jindal’s connection, Barkha wrote, “It was no secret that Indian steelmakers, both state and private players, were looking to foster friendly relations with Pakistan; they needed this to happen so they could ferry iron ore from Afghanistan by road across Pakistan from where it could be shipped to ports in western and southern India.”

Hindustan Times reported on 1 December, ” The proximity was at play in Kathmandu, where the Saarc summit was held on November 26 and 27. Modi called up Jindal from Nepal and asked him to take the earliest flight to the Nepali capital.”

Barkha wrote in her book, “Jindal was asked to discreetly reach out to his friend across the border.”

The two leaders then met quietly “in the privacy of Jindal’s hotel room”, where they spent an hour together.

Modi – hinting at the upcoming Jammu and Kashmir elections – indicated while he was keen, “circumstances” did not permit him to reopen formal channels. Sharif spoke about “constrictions” imposed on him by the security establishment and how his “negotiating power with the army had been gradually whittled away.”

Barkha further wrote, “This under-the radar encounter paved the way for Modi to openly reach out to Sharif two months later through a phone call that was positioned as an innocuous good-luck call for the World Cup.”

Modi’s Lahore visit has taken place on a day when it’s not just Sharif’s birthday, but it also happens to be the birthday of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose Lahore Bus diplomacy had earned him plenty of plaudits even from his detractors and a place in the history of India-Pakistan diplomacy.

But, 25 December was also the birth anniversary of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It remains to be seen if Modi too will draw flak from the extremists within the RSS and the within his own party, for choosing to travel to Pakistan on the birth anniversary of Jinnah.

While visiting Pakistan in 2005, Advani had referred to Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s speech in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1947 and described it as ‘a classic exposition of a Secular State’ and the founder of Pakistan as a genuine secularist.

As expected, Advani was hung, drawn and quartered by groups such as VHP and others for praising Jinnah.

The ghost of Jinnah came to haunt another senior BJP leader, Jaswant Singh, who in his book Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence, had described Jinnah as a good man. The BJP later expelled him from the primary membership of the party for using such profound words in praise of Jinnah.

How Hindutva brigade reacts to the timing of Modi’s ‘sudden’ Pakistan visit is the prerogative of the Sangh Parivar, but the series of inconsistencies in our prime minister’s foreign police towards the neighbouring country do pose some questions.

Post Ufa, Modi supporters and the Indian foreign ministry tried to convey the message that both India and Pakistan had agreed on removing Kashmir from the agenda. This, they hailed as a huge diplomatic coup by Modi. This argument came handy while justifying the cancellation of the National Security Advisors level talks in August this year.

However, only few weeks later, Modi government once again surprised us all by announcing the meeting of the NSAs of two countries in Bangkok. And, lo behold, Kashmir was back on the table.

The external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj (draped in a green sari) followed this up by visiting Pakistan and holding talks with her counterpart Sartaj Aziz and Nawaz Sharif.

Inconsistencies in foreign policy aside, Modi has also been accused of serving the interests of his businessmen friends on almost every foreign visit – and there are plenty of them, 26 in 2015 alone. Many in the past questioned the motive behind accompanying businessmen such as Gautam Adani and Ambanis with him to his foreign trips.

His closeness to Mark Zuckerberg was also seen as a secret attempt to give concessions to the Facebook founder for launching Free Internet Basics, which critics say, will kill net neutrality in India.

Clearly, Modi with his unannounced Lahore trip has provided enough ammunition to his critics, who have often accused him of promoting crony capitalism, for gunning at him all over again. It seems nothing that he does is going to be free from controversies.