Indo-Pak cricket will never be the right vehicle for taking bilateral relations to the next level
By Sushant Sareen
Consultant, Pakistan Project, IDSA
TWO THINGS characterise the Manmohan Singh government’s Pakistan policy: consistent bad timing and initiatives taken on impulse without either thinking things through or doing any political and diplomatic groundwork. With the inexplicable obsession of the PM to be the one to break the logjam guiding India’s Pakistan policy, not only is there a tendency to ignore the political ground realities inside Pakistan, there is also complete disregard for public opinion in India. But despite the manufactured hoopla surrounding the PM’s cricket diplomacy, it is only a matter of time before this over-hyped peace initiative gets dashed on the altar of reality, and the two countries retire hurt.
With cricket as the leitmotif, India has once again entered the silly season of trying to take an extra step in the fond — if misplaced — hope of making peace with Pakistan. But given the high nationalistic passions associated with cricket in India and Pakistan, it is hardly an ideal vehicle to carry forward the peace process. Indeed, if the countries are ever to have a chance of normalising relations, then what they really need to avoid is anything that stokes the passions of their peoples. India- Pakistan cricket might be great for marketers but its utility as a diplomatic tool is rather iffy.
That cricket can never be a substitute for quiet, serious diplomacy is borne out by past record. Gen Zia-ul-Haq initiated cricket diplomacy in 1987 by forcing himself on a reluctant Indian government after a near crisis caused by the Operation Brasstacks military exercise had been diffused. Pervez Musharraf’s sojourn in 2005 to watch the match in New Delhi also didn’t lead to any major breakthrough.
The two countries really need to avoid anything that stokes the passions of their peoples
The only time cricket acted as a force multiplier in improving relations between the two countries was during India’s tour of Pakistan in 2004. But back then, cricket rode on the back of a political and diplomatic breakthrough made possible by some quiet and rather firm diplomacy by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. In other words, in 2004, it was successful politics and diplomacy that changed the mood in the two countries and paved the way for a successful cricket tour. Today, however, the logic of 2004 is being turned on its head and an attempt made to ride on the back of cricket to achieve success in the realm of diplomacy and politics.
While cricket in the subcontinent is in a sense akin to the Spectacles in ancient Rome, it is unlikely to divert attention from the issues that bedevil bilateral relations. Nor for that matter will a good cricket series be able to gloss over difficult politico-military realities and psychological make-up that India must confront in its dealings with Pakistan. A peek into this mindset was given by the distasteful remarks of Pakistani skipper Shahid Afridi and before him Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, who said Pakistan’s victory in the World Cup semifinal will be celebrated by Muslims from Casablanca to Kuala Lumpur.
Therefore, unless the Indian prime minister has been completely taken in by his sweet-talking Pakistani counterpart, no purpose will be served by engaging their current civilian dispensation, which is really nothing more than a show-boy for the all-powerful Pakistan army when it comes to Pakistan’s India policy. It would probably make greater sense for India to open a sustained line of engagement with Pakistan’s military establishment. The problem in doing this is two fold: first, Pakistan army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani is reputed to harbour visceral hatred for India; and second, the Indian political establishment is extremely reluctant, even violently averse, to dealing directly with the Pakistan army. The real cricket diplomacy will begin when the two establishments can prepare a pitch on which they can play with each other. Until then, the scoreboard of India-Pakistan cricket diplomacy will remain static.