x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Singh changes the pitch with Pakistan by cricket diplomacy

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took an opportunity to reach out to his Pakistani counterparts during the recent Cricket World Cup. There may just be an opportunity for a new era in South Asian diplomacy.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was born in what would become Pakistan in 1947, which is perhaps why he has so often sought accommodation with his western neighbour. In recent years, Mr Singh has quietly overcome scepticism in India's home and external affairs ministries, not to mention the intelligence agencies, who see the hand of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency behind every act of violence.

But even Mr Singh could not overcome the public's hostility after the Mumbai attacks in 2008, which New Delhi blamed on Pakistani military auxiliaries.

When both countries qualified for the semi-finals of the Cricket World Cup 2011, it took less than a day for the Indian prime minister to decide to use the event to cool temperatures on both sides. He invited Pakistan's president and prime minister to attend the match last Wednesday in the small town of Mohali, and Prime Minister Youssef Raza Gilani accepted.

Although the invitation has been depicted as an impulsive decision, Mr Singh had been looking for a way past the deadlock for the past two years. Economics ranks first and second in Mr Singh's affections, with politics following in a distant third. For years, he has striven for closer economic ties between India and Pakistan to build mutual prosperity but also strengthen the peace constituencies on both sides.

Just before the match, a meeting of the two countries' home secretaries in New Delhi dispelled considerable scepticism. The talks saw a significant change in the tone of discussions, with both sides foregoing the temptation to grandstand in front of the media. In New Delhi, the visit cooled suspicions that Pakistan's civilian leadership were complicit in the Mumbai attacks.

During the trial of the only surviving attacker in the Mumbai attack, Islamabad had been accused of stonewalling Indian requests for evidence. The suspicion within the Indian security establishment was that their Pakistani counterparts were seeking to cover up their own involvement.

Another breakthrough came when Islamabad permitted an Indian team to interrogate suspects inside Pakistan, an unexpected concession that convinced many to agree with Mr Singh that the civilian establishment, focused on economic development, could be an ally in normalising ties.

Although few give him much chance of success, those close to Mr Singh say that he hopes to establish normal state-to-state ties with Pakistan during the three remaining years of his term. Unlike those who say that the knottiest issues - such as Kashmir - need to be resolved before ties are normalised, Mr Singh believes that only a period of better relations will create the trust and chemistry needed for these issues to nudge towards a mutually acceptable solution. Cultural as well as commercial contacts are the first step down that road.

In a departure from past encounters, especially during the term of the former Pakistani president and consummate showman, Pervez Musharraf, Mr Gilani and his delegation refused to play to the anti-India gallery in Islamabad by raking up controversy or dwelling on differences.

Pakistan's cricket team also took their defeat in a sporting manner. The graceful acceptance of the result by their captain Shahid Afridi in the glare of the television cameras won many hearts in India and reinforced the image of cricket as a gentlemen's game after a string of match-fixing scandals and bad behaviour had besmirched the sport.

Another New Delhi visit in the near future, this time from Pakistan's home minister, is expected to further consultations on shared threats, particularly terrorism that is beyond the control of the ISI.

So visible have the diplomatic effects at Mohali been that the Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to follow Mr Singh's initiative, announcing that he would attend the World Cup final on Saturday. Joined by India's president Pratibha Patil at the match, Mr Rajapaksa charmed the host nation with the informality and friendliness of the visit. He won even more hearts by seeking divine blessings for the Sri Lankan side at the famous Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh.

While leaders of the European Union come and go from each other's capitals with a breezy informality, as leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council often do, South Asian heads of state have always allowed themselves to be led by bureaucracies, refusing to visit each other except in carefully choreographed encounters usually after weeks of preparation.

Mr Singh's invitation, and Mr Gilani's acceptance, followed by the equally spontaneous gesture of Mr Rajapaksa, seem to herald a welcome change in this hidebound diplomatic orthodoxy. Should South Asia emulate the GCC and Europe in the frequency and informality of exchanges between leaders, the region might finally be able to negotiate the troubles that have dogged it for decades.

 

MD Nalapat holds the Unesco peace chair at Manipal University and is a former editor of The Times of India