« Back to articlePrint this article

Cricket diplomacy or Manmohan's malady?

March 28, 2011 15:09 IST

In the extremely fragile India-Pakistan relationship, flying visits of leaders can prove to be counter-productive. They create completely unrealistic expectations which are invariably dashed on the altar of ground realities and critical national interests, says Sushant Sareen.

On the evening of March 23, the day Pakistan celebrates its National Day and just a couple of days before Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh decided to invite his Pakistani counterpart to watch the India-Pakistan cricket World Cup semi-final match in Mohali, Indian security agencies got specific information about an imminent attack on the Indian ambassador and the Indian mission in Kabul.

Needless to say, the fingerprints of the Inter Services Intelligence were found all over the attack plan. Not only did the Indian intelligence have names of Pakistani officers who planned the attacks, they had all the information of how the attacks would be carried out. Without wasting any time on diplomatic niceties, the Pakistanis were immediately warned of 'severe consequences' if the attack was carried out. Caught with their pants down, the Pakistanis were forced to call off the attack.

Quite aside the fact that after two successful terror attacks on Indian establishments in Kabul -- the suicide bombing on the Indian embassy in 2008 and the fidayeen attack on a transit accommodation of Indian officials in 2010 -- this was the third or fourth time that a terror attack on Indian interests in Afghanistan had been pre-empted, the big question is whether the Indian prime minister has not been informed of these Pakistani plots against India, or whether he is so obsessed with entering into some sort of a peace deal with Pakistan that he is willing to ignore these murderous plots against Indian citizens. Increasingly, it appears that Dr Singh won't let anything, not even another 26/11, come in the way of his quest for peace with Pakistan.

Despite all the hype and hoopla and the mindless excitement, even hysteria, being whipped up over the semi-final match, and notwithstanding all the needless romanticisation of how 'cricket is the winner' or that 'cricket is a bridge between the two countries' or even that 'cricket is a religion in the two countries' (Pakistanis saying this are liable to be murdered as apostates), the ugly reality of Indo-Pak relations is something that Indians would do well not to lose sight off.

But first, a word about that old cliché of not mixing politics with sport: isn't the invitation to the Pakistani President and prime minister a classic case of mixing politics with cricket? Indeed, the very phrase 'cricket diplomacy' reeks of politics, and ends up relegating cricket into a sideshow. It is, however, quite another matter that the current round of 'cricket diplomacy' can hardly be called good politics.

For one, the two gentlemen invited by Dr Singh -- President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani -- don't really add up to very much in Pakistan, even less so when it comes to dealing with India. If the purpose of the invitation was something more than just creating a 'tamasha' (perhaps in the hope of deflecting attention from the massive corruption scandals dogging the government), it might have made more sense to have called the real power behind the throne -- the Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani.

Alternatively, Dr Singh could have played a little politics with the Pakistanis by inviting the entire spectrum of Pakistan's political leadership and holding a virtual all-party meeting of the Pakistani politicians on Indian soil with the aim of evolving a political consensus among them on peace with India, something that would have strengthened the hands of the Zardari/Gilani combine if they ever decided to move forward on relations with India.

No doubt, Gilani's presence in Mohali will make for great optics and will keep TV channels busy analysing the 'body language' of the leaders of the two countries. But apart from enriching marketers on both sides of the Radcliffe line, the visit is unlikely to achieve anything substantial. A major reason for this is the timing.

With the two countries having restarted the Composite Dialogue, there is no ice that needs to be broken by inviting the Pakistani prime minister for a cricket match. Nor is there any great crisis between the two countries that is sought to be defused through 'cricket diplomacy'. As for the invitation generating great goodwill on both sides of the border, this appears unlikely simply because the country that loses will sulk and the one that wins will gloat, both without any grace.

Except for a brief period in the middle of the last decade when cricket matches between the two countries were played in the spirit of sport, the norm has been to treat the cricket ground more as a battlefield than a sports field. And at a time, when the two sides are just picking up the pieces of their tattered dialogue, the last thing they need is the hangover induced by a cricket encounter that has been unfortunately and rather unnecessarily politicised.

There is an argument being made that if Pakistani spectators are allowed to see the match in Mohali, it will work as a shot in the arm for promoting people-to-people contacts between the two countries and give a huge fillip to the peace process between them. The problem is that the visa procedures as they stand won't permit many Pakistanis to enter India, unless of course, the Indian security agencies have decided to open the borders for Pakistani spectators.

In the flush of excitement over the invitation to Gilani, it is possible that the government throws caution to the winds and lets a large number of Pakistani spectators enter India without any sort of vetting. But they will do this at grave peril to the security of India. In his statement to the National Investigating Agency, the infamous David Headley has admitted that he and the mastermind of the 26/11 attacks, Sajid Mir, used cricket tourism in 2005 as a ploy to survey and select their targets in India, including the prime minister's residence and the National Defence College.

What is more, some 26 people who came for watching cricket matches in India in 2005 never returned to Pakistan. Five of these people were subsequently arrested and all of them were found to be sleeper agents indulging in espionage.

This is not to say that all Pakistanis are engaged in inimical actions against India. Far from it, there are many, many people of goodwill in Pakistan who don't harbour any inimical feelings towards India, people one is proud to call friends. The problem is that these nice guys don't really count for much and most of them are fast becoming an endangered species in their own country. In any case, the business of national security has to deal with nasty, and not nice, guys and therefore cannot afford to adopt a cavalier attitude for the sake of a cricket match, even if it is a World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan.

While under normal circumstances, it is a good thing if leaders of countries can just hop across for watching a sporting encounter, in the accident prone and extremely fragile India-Pakistan relationship, such flying visits can prove to be counter-productive. They create completely unrealistic expectations which are invariably dashed on the altar of ground realities and critical national interests. What India and Pakistan need is quiet diplomacy instead of loud, garrulous, Punjabi-style 'jhappis and pappis' which inevitably lead to a severe hangover after reality bites.

Sushant Sareen