Kathmandu: A day after ignoring each other, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart broke the ice on Thursday when the duo shook hands not once but twice on the 18th SAARC Summit here.
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. The PM even put his hand on Sharif's arm while sharing a light moment at the concluding ceremony of the Summit.
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.
Loud applause greeted this apparent thaw which was in contrast to the two leaders ignoring each other yesterday.
The brief Modi-Sharif bonhomie was summed up by a tweet by 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 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".
On whether Pakistan has made any gesture which can lead to meaningful dialogue or India wants something else, the spokesperson said the interlocutors understand what India means when India uses certain terms.
Asked whether the Pakistan Prime Minister expressed unhappiness over not being able to talk to his Indian counterpart, Akbaruddin said he was not aware of it.
"As you have seen after the retreat, first of all in the retreat, the atmosphere was very convivial. All the leaders were extremely comfortable with each other. They spent a lot of time together and when the Prime Minister of India and Prime Minister of Pakistan first came across each other they did exchange greetings and pleasant courtesies," he said.
"After that there was an open display of both the Prime Minister of India and Prime Minister of Pakistan shaking hands in public," the spokesperson said, indicating that there was no substantive bilateral interaction.
He also said the SAARC was not about India and Pakistan, it was about the region and strengthening the cooperation there.
Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has 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, Bhutan 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 yesterday, 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 Modi and Sharif 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 the 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 Pakistan High Commissioner in New Delhi with Kashmiri separatists 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, Pakistan did not help matters with Sharif insisting 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.
Modi had structured bilateral meetings with all SAARC heads of governments and states except Sharif on the sidelines of the 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Summit.
(With Agency inputs)