x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

'Cricket diplomacy' working well for India and Pakistan before big match

First talks between two countries since 2008 hailed as 'positive' as India and Pakistan attempt to repair relations while their leaders attend 'mother of all cricket contests' in Chandigarh, turning the city into a fortress.

India's home secretary, GK Pillai, right, meets his Pakistani counterpart, Chaudhary Qamar Zaman.
India's home secretary, GK Pillai, right, meets his Pakistani counterpart, Chaudhary Qamar Zaman.

NEW DELHI // India hailed "extremely positive" peace talks with Pakistan yesterday as both countries sought to build on a recent warming in relations brought on by some successful "cricket diplomacy".

The two home secretaries, the top civil servants in charge of security issues, met in New Delhi to repair relations between the regional rivals, which were broken off after the Mumbai attacks of 2008, when Pakistani militants killed 166 people in a three-day shooting spree.

The Indian home secretary, GK Pillai, said after a six-hour meeting at a hotel in the capital: "The talks were extremely positive. Progress was made in the right direction."

He promised a joint statement today, after a second day of talks with his counterpart Chaudhary Qamar Zaman. Both men are the highest ranking officials in their home ministries.

The focus has already turned to tomorrow's World Cup cricket semi-final between the two rivals after the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, invited Pakistani prime minister Yusaf Raza Gilani to the game.

Yesterday's talks were geared towards preparing the groundwork for a ministerial meeting in July that would put issues such as Kashmir, terrorism and trade on the negotiating table in what is known as the "composite dialogue".

The two countries agreed in February to resume formal talks. In a goodwill gesture before the cricket match, President Asif Ali Zardari will also free an Indian national, Gopal Das, who has been held in Pakistan for 27 years as an alleged spy.

Tomorrow's match has been heralded as "cricket diplomacy", something of a tradition between the two countries that has sometimes helped ease tensions in the past.

Zia ul Haq, the former Pakistani president, visited India in 1987 to watch a one-day match as the two countries' armies faced off on the border. In 2005, Pakistan's military ruler Pervez Musharraf travelled to India to watch a match, but the trip effectively turned into a summit and the two leaders agreed to open up the militarised frontier dividing the disputed Kashmir region.

"Going by past experience, however, cricket diplomacy has sadly been about short-lived atmospherics," The Times of India said.

The sporting fixture has turned the northern city of Chandigarh into a fortress, with a "no fly zone" in effect around the stadium and anti-aircraft guns placed nearby, the newspaper reported. Commandos will be patrolling the city.

Touted as "the mother of all cricket contests", the game between the two cricket-fanatical nations has reportedly led to requests from business tycoons, including India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, to allow them to park their private jets in Chandigarh.

Tickets sell on the black market for as much as US$2,000 (Dh7,345) in a country where 450 million live on less than $1.25 a day.

The match is taken so seriously and the stakes for national honour are so high that the Pakistani interior minister, Rehman Malik, warned the Pakistan team not to cheat, refocusing attention on match-fixing allegations last year that embarrassed the country and tarnished its cricket reputation. "I had issued a warning yesterday that there should not be any match-fixing. This time I have a very close eye on it and if any such thing happens, we will take action," he said.

He said players had been put under strict intelligence surveillance and their movements and telephone calls were being monitored. "Because of what has happened in London, we cannot take a chance."

Three team members were given lengthy suspensions by the International Cricket Council after last year's allegations of spot-fixing during a tour of England. Pakistanis will be sceptical that Mr Singh is playing to his domestic audience and trying to distract from a string of corruption scandals that have paralysed the Congress-led government for months.

Ejaz Haider, a Pakistani political analyst and contributing editor for Friday Times, said: "If the Indians have invited the prime minister and the president, there is no harm in going there, because this is a gesture. But this gesture in itself is not going to result in any breakthrough in substantial terms."

Many Pakistanis see little chance that the ruling Congress party and its behind-the-scenes ruler Sonia Gandhi are really interested in making peace overtures. It is a risky issue for any Indian leader, one that wins few votes and could quickly backfire if there was another attack in India blamed on Pakistan.

India has always been sceptical about peace talks with civilian leaders in Pakistan, who play second fiddle to a more hawkish army and military intelligence. But new winds may be blowing.

Mr Singh, 78, was born in Pakistan before moving to India after Partition in 1947. Peace with Pakistan would secure his political legacy, threatened by months of corruption scandals that have led to oppositions calls for his resignation.

Pakistan is facing an increasingly difficult regional environment. India's new economic clout has seen it grow in influence with Pakistan's traditional ally, the United States. New Delhi has also been increasingly involved in aid to Afghanistan, seen as Islamabad's backyard.

In one sign that India may be taking these talks more seriously, The Times of India reported on Sunday that New Delhi wanted to open channels of communications with the Pakistan army chief and the head of its intelligence service, General Ashfaq Kayani, seen as the real power brokers in any talks.

Mr Singh's perceived determination may win similar commitment from the other side. Naresh Chandra, a former Indian ambassador to the United States, said: "This kind of reputation that the PM has, in my view it helps. It creates a climate that you can do business with this prime minister. It encourages the Pakistani side to do so."