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From sport to spectacle and tamasha

March 30, 2011 14:16 IST

Cricket has been subsumed by the hyperbole surrounding the political summit. Whatever the result, one prime minister will be disappointed, and add to the emotional quotient of the contest, where victory and defeat will not be just a result but also a matter of national pride, says Nilova Roy Chaudhury.

The game of cricket is difficult enough for the two teams playing, particularly if they happen to be the national teams of sub-continental neighbours with a rather hostile history. Add to that the stress of the semi-finals of the quadrennial cricket world cup and you would think the playing teams, India and Pakistan, had more than enough pressure to handle for their face-off on Wednesday. There is also a huge security nightmare, given the very high profile of many guests, and the purported threat of a terrorist attack.

However, as if the pressure of over a billion expectations of victory in sport and the security worries were not enough, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided this was the right occasion to up the political ante, by using the World Cup cricket semi-final match as the milieu to ease political tensions between the two neighbouring countries whose ties have been frosty at best ever since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai on November 26, 2008.

He invited his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani and Pakistan's President Asif Zardari to Mohali (Chandigarh) as his guests to watch the game. The invitation has raised the hyperbole around a game of cricket to such feverish levels that television channels have breathlessly been reporting on the sporting rivalries between the teams in the language of war, thereby almost defeating the purpose of sporting encounters.

Gilani has accepted the invitation, which will place him in the media spotlight for the entire day, and will arrive for a dash of sub-continental summitry on Wednesday morning. The entire paradigm has shifted as a result of what is being variously called 'cricket diplomacy' and even 'Manmohan's folly'.

Supporters of Singh's gesture have endlessly spoken of how the invitation has caught the popular emotion, particularly in Pakistan, and has eased the tensions prevailing between the two countries.

Opponents have decried the 'trivialisation' of a complex political process between neighbours who have fought more than three wars over their differences and have a host of issues that need to be resolved.

According to several sources in government, what was the point of mixing sport with politics and doing justice to neither? After all, India and Pakistan have enough difficult problems between them to afford them serious thought and negotiation. This effort to 'trivialise' the issues through a public spectacle does not help the strains in the bilateral relationship.

Former junior minister for foreign affairs Shashi Tharoor cautioned against combining the hype about the game with raising political expectations and urged people to 'leave the politics to the government,' which is 'equipped' to handle it.

"It's a bit daft to suggest that politics can piggy-back on a sporting event," Mukul Kesavan, analyst and avid cricket observer commented.

Their comments were in line with the position adopted by the foreign offices of both countries, with sources in government insisting that there was no intention of raising expectations, given the complicated relationship that bedevils bilateral relations and after the many false starts on the road to dialogue for peace.

The deliberately low key expectations on the political front was reflected at the end of two days of talks between the interior and home secretaries of Pakistan and India which concluded earlier on Tuesday in New Delhi.

The home secretary-level talks saw a minor breakthrough, with agreement to allow Indian investigators to visit Pakistan to interrogate some of those accused in the Mumbai terror attacks. It also saw agreement on establishing a 'hotline' between them, two senior most government officials handling internal security.

The talks are the first part of the resumption of a sustained and comprehensive bilateral dialogue process, announced by foreign secretaries of both countries in Thimphu, Bhutan, last month.

After welcoming his Pakistani guest at the cricket stadium and watching the India-Pakistan Cricket World Cup semi-final match for a while in the evening, the Indian prime minister will invite his visiting Pakistani counterpart for dinner, during which both men are expected to speak on the future of bilateral ties and the steps required to provide them an impetus after the foreign secretary-level meeting in Thimphu in February, sources said.

Ever since Singh issued the invitation last Friday, on his own initiative and apparently without even the knowledge of the foreign office, the external affairs ministry has scrambled to put in place an agenda and structure for the talks.

Sources said the prime minister had a vision to ensure peace in the region and wanted a gradual easing of boundaries, to enable freer travel between countries in South Asia. He is likely to spell out this vision and push for normalisation of ties with Pakistan.

Singh will be accompanied during the talks (likely over dinner) by his National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, both of whom will accompany him to Mohali.

The actual game of cricket has been subsumed by the hyperbole surrounding the political summit. Whatever the result, one prime minister will be disappointed, and add to the emotional quotient of the contest, where victory and defeat will not be just a result but also a matter of national pride.

Nilova Roy Chaudhury