Sharif, Modi handshake, energy deal salvage SAARC moot

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  • Pakistani and Indian PMs shake hands twice, smile during brief chat
  • Sharif says he did not raise issue of resuming negotiations with Modi, just exchanged pleasantries
  • SAARC leaders agree on electricity sharing among the eight nations through a common grid but fail to sign two other economic agreements

A day after ignoring each other, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi broke the ice on Thursday when the duo shook hands not once but twice at the 18th SAARC Summit.

In a photo-op that appeared to belie any misunderstanding or animosity between the two neighbours, Modi and Sharif chatted while shaking hands, smiling all the while.

This was the second time during the day that the two leaders had shaken hands and exchanged pleasantries, the first occasion being the retreat in Dhulikhel, a picturesque tourist resort, about 30 km from Kathmandu, where the SAARC leaders held deliberations in an informal setting.

On the second occasion, the duo kept their handshake for 35 seconds.

During their brief meeting in Dhulikhel, Sharif reportedly told Modi that people have a lot of expectations from their governments, adding that it was saddening that India-Pakistan talks got cancelled after ceasefire violations at the LoC and International Border. However, on reaching Pakistan, Sharif told reporters that he had only shook hands with the Indian premier and had not raised the issue of resuming negotiations.

Loud applause greeted this apparent thaw which was in contrast to the two leaders ignoring each other on Wednesday.

The brief Modi-Sharif bonhomie was summed up by a tweet by Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin, “the photo all were waiting for”.

Earlier, Modi also clapped before and after Sharif’s vote of thanks as the host for the next SAARC Summit in Islamabad next year.

Not just with Sharif, the Indian PM shook hands with the Pakistani media personnel. When asked about his visit to Pakistan, Modi chose not to make a comment and passed a smile.

Later, Akbaruddin told reporters that India was interested in meaningful dialogue with Pakistan.

“India is for peaceful and cooperative relations with Pakistan. If this handshake leads to that, we will welcome it. However, emphasis is on meaningful dialogue,” Akbaruddin said.

To a question, he said he was unaware of what Modi and Sharif spoke about during the Dhulikhel retreat as “there was no one else. Nobody else knows what they talked of. They spoke of SAARC matters, but what specifically they discussed, no one is privy”.

Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala played the mediator’s role. It was Koirala who pushed the leaders of the two South Asian neighbours to sit for talks, at least informally, and break the logjam in the bilateral India-Pakistan relations.

During the concluding ceremony, as soon as Koirala declared the session closed, Modi turned to the immediate neighbour to his right, Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, and shook hands and chatted.

He then shook hands with Maldives President Abdulla Yameen, and with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and was joined by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sharif was away from the group, talking to a Nepali minister, while Koirala was looking awkwardly on, standing in the midst of the two rival prime ministers.

Just when the question was on everyone’s mind – will they, won’t they – Modi finished chatting with his group of SAARC leaders, turned around and spoke to the Nepali prime minister, and stepped ahead to shake hands with Sharif.

Earlier in the day, away from the glare of cameras, Modi and Sharif held informal talks at the Dhulikhel retreat, those present said.

As in the past SAARC summits, the chemistry between Indian and Pakistani leaders grabbed much attention at this 18th conclave of the eight South Asian nations.

At the opening session Wednesday, Modi and Sharif had ignored each other leading to a guessing game of whether they would meet even briefly.

The relief on the faces of the host Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, other leaders and delegates was palpable as they all clapped when Sharif and Modi vigorously shook hands. That also marked a positive point for the summit which achieved little else.

Lack of warmth between the two prime ministers at SAARC is reflective of the sudden downslide in Indo-Pak ties after Sharif had attended Modi’s swearing-in ceremony as did most of the SAARC leaders in May this year.

Consultations held by the Pakistan high commissioner in New Delhi with Kashmiri leaders led to the cancellation by India of Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh’s visit to Islamabad in September. Since then both countries have maintained that they are willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue provided the other side takes the initiative.

Ahead of SAARC, Sharif insisted that he would consult Kashmiri leaders again before any dialogue with India and maintained that the “ball is in India’s court” since it had unilaterally cancelled the talks.

ENERGY SHARING DEAL:

Earlier, the South Asian heads of state attending their first summit in three years reached a deal on energy sharing, but failed on two other economic agreements.

On the last day of the two-day summit, the leaders agreed on electricity sharing among the eight nations through a common grid.

From Pakistani side, the agreement was signed by Advisor to Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz.