Modi’s impromptu Lahore visit: Was the meeting pre-panned?

New Delhi, Dec 26 (IANS) The ‘surprise visit’ by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Pakistan on Nawaz Sharif’s birthday was hailed as a diplomatic triumph everywhere.

But was the visit as impromptu as has been billed by Modi and his officials?

The presence of Indian steel tycoon Sajjan Jindal in Pakisan would seem to bely that. Jindal is said to have been instrumental in setting up another meeting between Modi and Sharif — in November 2014 in Kathmandu during the SAARC summit.

Sajjan Jindal, brother of former Congress MP Naveen Jindal, has ties with prime minister Sharif’s family.

He also has business relations with the Ittefaq Group of Industries, a Pakistani integrated steel producer with major operations in Punjab, which was founded by industrialist Muhammad Sharif, father of Nawaz Sharif.

Sajjan Jindal, in a tweet had announced his presence in Lahore. “In Lahore to greet PM Navaz Sharif on his birthday (sic),” the tweet had said.

Sajjan’s JSW, and Naveen’s Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL) are part of a consortium led by state-owned SAIL, along with Monnet Ispat and AFISCO (Afghan Iron), which was keen to obtain from Pakistan ‘right of way’ to transport iron ore by road from Hajigak iron ore deposits in the Bamian, Afghanistan to Karachi. From the Pakistani port the ore was aimed to be shipped to western and southern parts of India.

As per an agreement between the India and Afghanistan in 2011, the Indian companies and AFISCO would construct a one-million-tonne-a-year steel mill and develop the 1.8-billion-tonne iron-ore reserves at Hajigak, which boasts of good quality ore with over 60 percent iron content.

The plan has been stuck for long because of Taliban control of the Hajigak area, which is about 140 km west of Kabul.

When Sharif came to India for the swearing in ceremony of the newly elected National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in May 2014, he had attended a tea party hosted by Jindal.

Sharif drew flak back home for attending the tea party, although this was largely ignored in India.

The Imran Khan party Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf said in a statement that going to a steel magnate’s house for tea, when he couldn’t find time to meet the Hurriyat leaders “reflected the misplaced priorities of Sharif.”

According to an account in the book ‘This Unquiet Land’ by journalist Barkha Dutt, Sajjan Jindal was instrumental in fixing the Kathmandu meeting the two leaders from the sub-continent.

“On reaching Kathmandu, the prime minister (Modi) had called Sajjan Jindal and asked him to hop on to the earliest flight to Nepal. Jindal was asked to discreetly reach out to his ‘friend’ across the border. Subsequently, the two prime ministers were able to meet quietly in the privacy of Jindal’s hotel room in Nepal, where they are said to have spent an hour together,” the book says.

Foreign office officials, though, denied that any such meeting took place.

On Friday, following the meeting between the two leaders, Dutt tweeted: “Dear @MEAIndia, you denied my book’s scoop on sajjanjindal as conduit for PMs meet in Nepal. Today he’s in Lahore.”

Foreign Office spokesman Vikas Swarup replied back in a tweet, calling it “another baseless story.”

The Congress party had alluded to the arrangement by Jindal when it criticised Modi’s Lahore stopover saying the visit was aimed at aiding a private business house.

“We are very clear that the prime minister is there to promote only private business interests and not India’s national interest which should be supreme,” Congress spokesman Anand Sharma had said.

But from all indications, the unprepared and unscripted meeting was hardly that.

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