New Delhi: Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had a surprise visitor on his 66th birthday: his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

More importantly, it was also the first visit by an Indian prime minister in little over a decade; the last visit was by prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004.

The seemingly spontaneous personal gesture from Modi, on his way back from Afghanistan, has infused a sense of optimism into the rapprochement process that the two countries had only recently initiated.

Barring the leadership of the two countries, everyone, including the media, was kept in the dark; neither side disclosed details of the deliberations between the two leaders.

“The PM Modi-Pak PM Nawaz Sharif meeting was held in very cordial atmosphere... It has been decided there will be greater interaction, people-to-people contact, to create an environment of goodwill," Pakistan foreign secretary Aizaz Chaudhry said.

The big question is whether the surprise element is the catalyst the two countries are seeking in effecting a long planned makeover in their otherwise testy and sometimes combative relationship.

By shielding the dialogue from media glare, the two leaders have given themselves more diplomatic room for manoeuvre. It also eases the burden of expectations on the two leaders when they meet at the 19th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) to be hosted by Pakistan next year.

The two-hour visit to Sharif’s home in Lahore drew enormous attention on social media; for nearly two hours #Lahore was the top trend.

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Reuters, reporting from Islamabad, quoted Pakistan foreign ministry officials on how the hurried visit was planned.

“Modi phoned Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while on a visit to neighbouring Afghanistan and asked if he could make a stop in Pakistan on his way home," Chaudhry told the news agency. “And the PM said to him, ‘Please come, you are our guest, please come and have tea with me’."

Modi had similarly taken everyone by surprise last year, when he took the decision to invite leaders of all South Asian countries for the swearing-in ceremony of his government.

While it did break the ice, the relationship between the two neighbours rapidly deteriorated, only to be revived recently after the two prime ministers had a similar impromptu meeting on the sidelines of the climate summit in Paris last month.

The proposed visit was disclosed by Modi on Twitter while he was in Kabul where he inaugurated the new building of the Afghan parliament constructed by India. “Spoke to PM Nawaz Sharif & wished him on his 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.

He was received by Sharif at Lahore airport with a hug. The duo then boarded a helicopter to go to Sharif’s family residence at Jati Umra in Raiwind, Lahore, for the wedding of Sharif’s granddaughter.

The visit is Modi’s first to the neighbouring country since he became prime minister in May 2014, and completes the cycle that began with the handshake between Modi and Sharif in Paris during the climate summit.

The Paris meeting was followed by national security advisers (NSAs) of Pakistan and India holding secret talks in Bangkok and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Pakistan earlier this month.

The visit provides the opportunity to open a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations, which had nosedived after the cancellation of NSA-level talks earlier this year.

While Swaraj called Modi’s step statesman-like, the opposition criticized it.

“That’s like a statesman. Padosi se aise hi rishte hone chahiyen (this is the kind of relations we should have with neighbours)," said Swaraj.

Congress leader Anand Sharma said they need a clarification from Modi on his return.

“This meeting raises fundamental questions. The prime minister has a habit of grabbing headlines. We got to know about this meeting after he returned from Russia and Kabul. Even, the meeting between the two leaders held earlier in Kathmandu was kept a secret. Modi has kept the country in the dark. Calling him a statesman is a joke, there is no seriousness in this remark. We have had statesmen like Nehru and Vajpayee, but no one ever did this," said Sharma.

Pakistan, meanwhile, welcomed the visit.

“Prime Minister of Pakistan welcomed the initiative of the Prime Minister of India to visit Lahore. Both leaders expressed their desire to carry forward the dialogue process for the larger good of people of the two countries. The two prime ministers agreed to continue and enhance contacts and work together to establish good neighbourly relations," the spokesperson of Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs said.

Foreign policy experts expressed happiness at the move but said India needs a clear road map for dealing with Pakistan.

“Obviously it was not spontaneous as no prime minister just drops by, but there was obviously some advantage that Modi saw. I think Modi has done a Vajpayee. It was probably his way to bring a dramatic change in the relations—the way Vajpayee succeeded with his visit to Lahore. It was definitely a bold step and it clearly points to India wanting to pursue the path of dialogue with Pakistan," said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

“But he must now make sure that it produces results because many a time such initiatives have failed. In Modi’s case too, numerous such initiatives have not taken off. He has basically made the path smoother by sorting out issues with Sharif. This also silences critics in both the nations on the dialogue process," he added. He also pointed out that it was Sharif who had welcomed Vajpayee in Lahore and that he welcomed Modi is a symbolic move.

Ajay Darshan Behera of the Delhi-based Jamia Millia Islamia said India needs a clear road map for dealing with Pakistan and a flexible approach. Behera is coordinator of the Centre for Pakistan Studies at the Academy of International Studies at the university.

“It is certainly a good move and needs to be appreciated. But the only concern is whether it has been thought through completely or not. Clearly BJP’s (Bharatiya Janata Party’s) initial hardline approach has not worked. What is required is a clearly-thought-out strategy for dealing with Pakistan," he said.

“Our relations with Pakistan are very unlike those with Russia, China and the US. There are so many challenges. What has become clear in the past 10-15 months of the National Democratic Alliance government is that Pakistan cannot be forced. India basically needs a policy with Pakistan where India is not pushed into a situation where talks have to be cut off. We just have to be cautious and not go overboard," Behera added.

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