Originally Published 2011-03-29 00:00:00 Published on Mar 29, 2011
Dr. Manmohan Singh's invitation to Pakistani President and the Prime Minister has a special relevance for a number of reasons. And Dr. Singh definitely deserves kudos for pushing the envelope for Indo-Pak peace, in spite of not being on the strongest political wicket himself.
Cricket Diplomacy on a Strong Wicket
The usage of cricket diplomacy, at a crucial phase in the Indo-Pak relationship, by the Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, has reiterated the centrality of ’soft power’ in the relationship between the two countries. After India trounced Australia on March 24 in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, the stage was set for an Indo-Pak semi-final. Dr. Manmohan Singh lost no time and an invitation was extended on March 26 to the Pakistani Prime Minister, Mr. Yousuf Raza Gilani. and the President, Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, for the Indo-Pak semi-final to be played at Mohali in Punjab on March 30. Mr. Gilani accepted Dr. Singh’s invitation. The Pakistani President, however, will not be able to make it because of personal reasons.

In his invitation sent to the Pakistani President and the Prime Minister, Dr. Singh is reported to have written, ’there is huge excitement over the match and we are all looking forward to a great game of cricket that will be a victory for sport. It gives me great pleasure to invite you to visit Mohali and join me and the millions of fans from our two countries to watch the match’ . While responding positively to the Indian PM’s offer, the Pakistani President’s spokesman Farhatullah Babar remarked that ’We have welcomed the invitation of Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh and it has now been decided that Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani will visit India to watch the match’ and will hold formal discussions with his Indian counterpart after the match. It might be mentioned that while accepting the Indian PM’s invite, the Pakistani Government in a goodwill gesture has decided to release a 52-year-old Indian citizen by the name of Gopal Dass, who had been in a Pakistani jail for 27 years.

The general response, in the Indian media, especially English dailies, to this round of cricket diplomacy has been positive. The March 26th edition of the Asian Age, New Delhi, carried a headline ’ PM makes gentleman’s offer’ while the Tribune, on the same day, carried a headline ’All roads lead to Mohali for cricket diplomacy. An edit ’Batting for peace: PM’s cricket diplomacy changes Indo-Pak climate’ in the March 28th edition of the same newspaper, articulates the point that ’.. this is not the first time that cricket is being used to boost the efforts for improving relations between the two neighbours… But it had a limited response because very little was done to change the mindset of the masses in Pakistan… But the situation today is different with a huge constituency for peace that exists on both sides of the border. Every available opportunity must be utilized to expand this constituency so that people in the sub-continent develop a stake in peace. Then all the issues involving India and Pakistan will be easier to resolve’. A story ’PM cricket diplomacy helps free Indian in Pak prison’ in the Mail Today gives credit to Dr Singh’s initiative for the release of Gopal Dass, ’Whatever be the outcome of the April 2 final at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, Dass stands to gain the priceless gift of freedom - after 27 long years of incarceration - and he has to thank Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cricket diplomacy for his release’ Pakistani newspapers such as Dawn have hailed the initiative, saying that ’the smart diplomatic initiative through cricket will provide a real time fillip to real time Diplomacy.

The Mint (New Delhi) in a March 28th edit, ’Diplomacy on a spin’ is a bit more skeptical, and while it lauds Dr Singh’ initiative and PM Gilani’s gracious acceptance, it is a bit more cautious .. ’India-Pakistan matches haven’t been as effective, because larger political games have been played with less sportsmanship. Gilani’s visit therefore underscores little other than good manners on the part of both countries. A day may come when an India-Pakistan match will be more than just a hopeful precursor to improving political relations. But it is unlikely to be this Wednesday’.

It might be mentioned that Dr. Singh earlier invited General Pervez Musharraf, erstwhile Pakistani President, for a cricket series in 2005. It was left to Musharraf to explain the rules of the game to Singh. It remains to be seen whether the latter is more well versed with the rules of the game, as he is in other realms, most of all foreign policy. In 1987, then Pakistani President, Zia-ul-Haq visited Jaipur on an invitation from the then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

This invitation has a special relevance for a number of reasons. One, in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, it is the first bilateral summit between the leadership of both countries. Second, the PM’s personal invite to the Pakistani leadership reveals Dr. Singh’s deep commitment to a more amicable Indo-Pak relationship. This in spite of the fact that his government is embroiled in a plethora of corruption scams. Thus Dr. Singh definitely deserves kudos for pushing the envelope for Indo-Pak peace, in spite of not being on the strongest political wicket himself. The move may not lead to extraordinary outcomes, but has definitely lent a new lease of life to engagement between the two countries, according to prominent Pakistani political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. Finally and interestingly, the ’Punjab connection’ in the Indo-Pak relationship carries on. For the match is being played in Indian Punjab, and both the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers are Punjabis. On earlier occasions too, the PM has made peace overtures, in speeches, to Pakistan while being in Indian Punjab and this time he has the opportunity to extend an olive branch to the leadership of that country.

It remains to be seen who wins the game, but Dr. Singh’s initiative has clearly reiterated the fact that in the sub-continent, spontaneity is a crucial ingredient of diplomacy.

(Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with Observer Research Foundation. His Views are personal)

Courtesy: American Security Council Foundation website

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