Salman Masood

ISLAMABAD - Sixteen years ago in May 1998, Pakistan detonated six nuclear devices in response to Indian nuclear tests. At that time, nationalistic fervour skyrocketed on both sides of the divide. Bharatiya Janata party ruled India then and Nawaz Sharif was the Pakistani premier.

Soon after the nuclear tests, as the frenzy subsided, both sides realised that testing of the nuclear weapons had, in fact, led to a deterrent. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Indian prime minister, came to visit Lahore in an unprecedented visit and both Sharif and Vajpayee talked about normalising ties. Then, suddenly Kargil happened and turned everything upside for prime minister Sharif, as events snowballed and led to his eventual ouster in a military coup by former army ruler Pervez Musharraf.

But just like politics makes for strange bedfellows, it also makes for unusual and unpredictable turn of events.

Sixteen years later, 2014 saw BJP return to power in India, Modi riding a powerful wave that routed Congress. Last year, Nawaz Sharif had already made a triumphant return to power.

And, ever since assuming the power mantle, Nawaz Sharif has made it clear that he considers the gap between his 1999 ouster and 2013 return to power as a hiatus caused by the inexorable fate.

It was, therefore, no surprise that soon after meeting the newly sworn-in Indian prime minster Modi, Sharif said that he intends to "pick up the threads" from where he and Vajpayee had left off.

Prime Minister Sharif knew that his visit across the border to attend the oath-taking ceremony of Narendra Modi, the firebrand politician known more for his acerbic vitriol against Muslims, was a political risk.

Hardliners in the country need no real excuses to push forward in asserting themselves. The political opposition has been, in recent weeks, trying to infuse a new life into street protests. Religious right has always dreamt of subduing India, the Red Fort being one of their favourite destinations to conquer. Appearing too keen to extend a hand of friendship to India has the possibility of backfiring.

Many analysts already had a grim view that attending the ceremony would have no real, tangible results and might cause Nawaz Sharif political embarrassment if the Indian side does not exhibit any flexibility.

An oath-taking ceremony is hardly an occasion to restore a relationship that is as complicated and complex as it can get. But Sharif shunned such pessimistic forecasts and went ahead. If Modi had shown any signs of magnanimity by sending an invite to archival Pakistan, Sharif reciprocated by accepting the invitation.

Pakistani officials say the gesture was welcomed by their Indian counterpart. Both prime ministers met twice - one with the groups and one one-to-one.

"The tone and body language of Modi towards Pakistani delegation was full of warmth," said a senior Pakistani official, who was part of prime minister's entourage to New Delhi.

But as noted by Indian news media, Modi might have extended a warm handshake, he nevertheless delivered a tough message by urging the Pakistani side to expedite the Mumbai trial and ensure that no future terrorists attacks stem from the Pakistani soil.

Many in Pakistan construed the Indian reiterations as a sign of Indian hegemonic behaviour. Moeed Pirzada, prominent analyst and talk show host, posted a tweet:

"So, Emperor "Modi" summoned our PM Nawaz to Delhi court to issue Ultimatum & then release to media; Welcome to Peace & Diplomacy, BJP style!"

Pakistani officials, who were part of the Sharif's entourage, dismissed these assertions.

"PM Sharif reminded PM Modi about Lahore declaration. Kashmir issue was discussed at length with Indian prime minister," the Pakistani official said.

"Modi said that we only request for justice from you. Mumbai trial and closure of this issue will help both countries," the Pakistani official recounted the Indian prime minister as saying .

"Similarly Modi said that we can move on trade, investment in textile and power sector and this will help the common man on both sides. Modi said that trade and people contact will minimise misgivings on both sides," the senior Pakistani official, who spoke on condition of anonymity said. "The issue of attack on Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, was not discussed in the meeting."

Dispelling the impression that Prime Minister Sharif was lacking in raising issues critical to a large number of Pakistanis, the official said that Sharif did raise Kashmir issue during the meeting with Modi.

"Both prime minsters agreed that decades of war have not led the two countries anywhere," the official said.

As an indication of how seriously the new Indian leadership took Sharif's visit, Pakistani officials also pointed out that BJP president and Indian home minister Raj Nath Singh specially went to Vajpayee's house to receive the Pakistani prime minister.

"Both the prime minister's also agreed that all issues, without exception, will be discussed in the coming foreign secretaries meeting," the senior Pakistani official said. Modi acknowledge that the people of India consider Nawaz visit as a special gesture.

"We appreciate it," PM Modi said to PM Sharif, according to Pakistani officials.

Indian President Parnab Mukarji went a step further and said: "Prime Minister Nawaz, for us, you are a man of peace."

Pakistani officials say that both prime ministers are now expected to meet next at the United Nations.

Stressing that he wants to revive and normalise the ties between the two countries, Prime Minister Sharif has made his intentions clear - and laid his cards on the table.

He is now waiting for the Indian prime minister to reciprocate.

The writer is Resident Editor, The Nation in Islamabad.