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Dr Singh's invitation to Pakistan's head of State and head of government is an important but risky gesture which could have political consequences, believes B Raman
I have been a strong and consistent critic of the manner in which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been handling India-Pakistan relations.
Nobody has written more strongly on his agreement with then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf at Havana in September 2006 for a joint counter-terrorism machinery than I.
Nobody has written more strongly on his failure to deal effectively with Pakistan after the 26/11 strikes than I.
Nobody has hit out more vehemently at him post-Sharm-el-Sheikh (conference in July 2009) than I for making a reference to Balochistan in his joint statement with Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. I had also written an open letter to Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, on this subject.
I had criticised him on other occasions too for what I perceived was a lack of consistency in his policy towards Pakistan.
Yet, despite my past criticism of Dr Singh, I have refrained from deploring the initiative taken by him in inviting Gilani and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to watch the India-Pakistan World Cup Cricket semi-final at Mohali on March 30 except on the ground that inviting both could impose a heavy responsibility on our intelligence and security agencies which would be called upon to protect them.
My decision to refrain from criticising our prime minister's Mohali initiative could be attributed to two reasons. Firstly, I have been feeling for over a year now that Indo-Pakistan relations have gotten into a rut and that the time has come for the two countries to think of ways of giving it a forward push.
Secondly, I saw the prime minister's invitation to the two Pakistani leaders not as a diplomatic initiative to discuss substantive issues, but as an attempt to create a feel-good atmosphere between the two countries at a time when the atmosphere of suspicion and hostility towards Pakistan in India is very strong.
This is because of Islamabad's perceived lack of interest in the prosecution of the Pakistan-based co-conspirators of the 26/11 terrorist strikes, reports about the ingress of a large number of Chinese troops in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and China's decision, with America's complicity, to build two more nuclear power stations in Pakistan.
The prime minister, as I could notice, had taken care to see that his invitation to the two Pakistani leaders is not viewed as 'cricket diplomacy' or as yet another exercise at summitry.
If he had wanted it to be another summit exercise, he would not have invited both the head of State and the head of government of Pakistan, though ultimately only Gilani has accepted the invitation.
If he had wanted to upstage the road-map laid down for the resumption of formal talks with Pakistan by senior officials, he would have most probably convened a meeting of either the National Security Council or the Cabinet Committee on Security to prepare the groundwork for the initiative. There are no indications to show that he did either.
It seems to have been a decision taken by him on the spur of the moment after it became known that India and Pakistan would be pitted against each other in a semi-final match.
Because of the continuing cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, we could not have been generous in issuing visas to Pakistani spectators wanting to cross over to India to watch the match.
The invitation to the two leaders of the Pakistani people is a gesture which could mitigate to some extent any disappointment in Pakistan over India's reluctance to issue more visas.
It is an important but risky gesture which could have political consequences -- positive if the two prime ministers reach some understanding on bilateral relations on the margins of the match, and negative if Mohali match is followed by a serious act of terrorism somewhere.
In an earlier article, I had stressed the importance of not projecting the cricket match as another Indo-Pak war to be won or lost. It is equally important not to project the prime minister's invitation as a major diplomatic move, which it does not seem to be.
We should avoid unnecessarily and unwisely creating either feelings of confrontation over the match or feelings of expectation over the meeting of the two prime ministers during the match.
We should also avoid Hyde Park-style debates on this issue on our TV channels. Indo-Pakistan relations are too serious a matter to be trivialised.