Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani padded up for some interesting cricket diplomacy this week against the backdrop of an adrenaline-charged World Cup semi-final.
Singh had invited Gilani to watch the match in Mohali, a small town in India’s prosperous northern agrarian state of Punjab, just a few kilometres east of the Pakistan border. Indian army helicopters and anti-aircraft guns imposed a 'no-fly zone' over the stadium to ward off any potential attack by militants.
Cricket diplomacy is something of a tradition between the two Asian neighbours, and has in the past occasionally helped ease bilateral tensions. Indeed, some might recall that then-Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq visited India in 1987 to watch a one-day match even as the two countries' armies faced each other across the border.
In 2005, then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf travelled to India to watch a test match, but the trip quickly morphed into a summit, with the two leaders agreeing to open up the militarized frontier dividing the disputed Kashmir region. And now it seems cricket is once again being employed as a lubricant to ease political friction between the two nuclear-armed Asian rivals.
This time around, opinion is divided in India over whether mixing diplomacy with sports was such a good idea. After all, India-Pakistan relations have been particularly strained following the deadly 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, which claimed166 lives in India’s financial capital. India blames Pakistani militants for the massacre, suggesting that they colluded with Pakistan’s spy agencies.
‘Going by past experience, cricket diplomacy has sadly been about short-lived atmospherics,’ one national daily commented.
‘It facilitates resolution, it doesn’t lead to resolution,’ Musharraf noted in an interview with an Indian news channel.
Still, many feel that the game (which was won by India) offered Singh and Gilani a wonderful diplomatic forum to engage fruitfully for an uninterrupted eight hours. Moreover, the fact that such a high-level meeting is taking place against the informal backdrop of a cricket match also lowered some of the expectations and pressure associated with formal summits.
Singh has consistently pushed for reconciliation with Pakistan, despite the trust deficit between the two countries. In a major confidence-building measure ahead of the match, Islamabad too, agreed to let Indian investigators travel to Pakistan to probe the Mumbai assault. The time seems ripe, then, for a breakthrough in ties.
While there was no formal or structured dialogue format for the two leaders, they spoke at length while watching the match, and then over a lavish dinner.
The apparent camaraderie—or what is now being touted as the 'Mohali Spirit'—may even help the ruling Congress government propose widening contact and re-engagement with Pakistan at various levels.
The broad ‘agenda’ at Mohali, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao later told the media, was to ‘understand each other better, resolve outstanding issues and at the core of the dialogue…to normalize relations, pervasive and more permanent normalization process in an uninterrupted manner.’
Certainly, Singh’s move could turn out to be something of a masterstroke in wresting the policy initiative back after the torrent of corruption scandals that have hit his government. The efforts could even help him salvage his party’s chances in five states in the upcoming regional elections.
However, some have argued that Singh’s engagement with a Pakistani civilian government that has limited say on foreign policy matters—and one which may not be able to deliver on anti-terror promises—is futile. Certainly, Gilani failed to give a concrete assurance on addressing India’s long-standing concerns on terror.
Even so, Singh has maintained that there’s no alternative to ‘sustained engagement,’ and he reiterated again at Mohali ‘the need for an atmosphere free of violence and terror in order to enable the true normalization of relations between India and Pakistan’.
The Congress Party will certainly be hoping the summit will help dilute the embarrassment of the Sharm-el Sheikh joint statement in 2009, in which India allowed a reference to Balochistan to creep in, setting off a furore back home.
At the end of his meeting, Gilani reportedly extended an invitation to Singh to visit Pakistan, and also talked about an Indian cricket team visiting Pakistan to play a match. A cautiously optimistic Congress must therefore feel that the dialogue process that has been set in motion post-Mohali is a sign of the two governments’ intention to move on.
Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist