UNITED NATIONS: The meeting everybody wanted did not happen. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi left for home without meeting his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif.
The two leaders lived in the same hotel --- the Waldorf Astoria --- during the 70th UN General Assembly. Twice, they shared a room and used the same podium to address a summit meeting but they did not meet or talk.
Like quarrelsome neighbours forced to acknowledge each other, the two prime ministers, however, did wave and smile at each other. This happened at the UN peacekeeping summit on Monday afternoon. But even this half-friendly gesture generated another controversy: who blinked first?
“India wins again. The Pakistani prime minister was the first to wave,” claimed the Indian media while the two leaders were still in the meeting room.
“No, he did not,” shouted a journalist in the Pakistani media room at the nearby Roosevelt Hotel. And then both sides got glued to their TV screens, watching replays in slow motion to claim a point in this game of chicken.
“Does it really matter?” asked Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, after a half-hour “who-was-the-first” debate at an evening news briefing. “All that matters is that the two leaders waved and smiled at each other,” said Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry.
This is how this ‘non-event’ happened at the Leaders’ Summit on Peacekeeping, hosted jointly by the US, Pakistan and others: Mr Modi walked into the conference hall first and took his seat on the right side of the horseshoe table there. Mr Sharif followed and took his seat right across Mr Modi on the left side of the table. Both pretended not to have noticed each other.
Just minutes before the programme began, Mr Sharif waved at Mr Modi. Yes, he was the first to show his positive mindset, persuading the Indian leader to respond.
Mr Modi smiled back and waved too. After a brief pause, Mr Modi waved again to Mr Sharif, who smiled back and nodded his head.
Now, who was the winner? Perhaps none or both, but that was not good enough for the media who continued to debate who won. Apparently handicapped by their over-zealous media, the two leaders avoided further display of affection for each other.
They made no attempt to interact. They entered the room just minutes before the summit began and took their seats. To avoid a face-to-face situation, the two leaders did not walk about to meet or greet others, as some other leaders did.
But they did clap at the end of each other’s speech.
Since Mr Sharif was a co-host, a fact not mentioned by the Indian media, he shared the table with other hosts, US President Barack Obama, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and leaders from Rwanda and Ethiopia.
Mr Modi sat with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and leaders from France and Indonesia.
The Indian and Pakistani prime ministers spent about 90 minutes in the conference room and Mr Modi was the first to leave, immediately after addressing the summit. He did not walk up to any leader to shake hands. Mr Sharif left the room soon after Mr Modi.
Mr Modi flew back to India on Monday night after concluding his two-nation tour of Ireland and the US.
Prime Minister Sharif is still in New York and will return home on Wednesday after addressing the UN General Assembly.—M.H. and A.I.
Published in Dawn, September 30th , 2015