Playing cricket for peace
Mohali is for optics. The real match between India and Pakistan is across the negotiating table. And in that, there aren’t going to be any winners or losers. Not at least in the visible future.
So why did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reach out to Pak counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani all of a sudden? Apparently to create an ambience for the resumed dialogue, to send a message to world capitals that India does not abandon reasonable conduct even when wronged. Or betrayed to the core.
It’s perhaps for this reason that Singh dovetailed his unilateral gesture with the March 28-29 Home Secretary-level talks— at the core of which is the glacial Pak probe into the conspiracy part of Mumbai’s 26/11. The Indian Premier’s Mohali meeting with Gilani a day later could come in handy therefore to take stock of the outcome in New Delhi. For their part, the Pakistanis have lately been harping on the saffron twist in the Samjhauta Express attack to frustrate India’s demands in the Mumbai case. I am skeptical if not pessimistic about Singh’s Mohali initiative. It could boomerang badly on the resumed dialogue if spectators turn violent or players misbehave on the field. The cricketing icons must desist from sledging. One incident of such conduct could damage beyond repair the match ambience and by implication the tenuous efforts to put bilateral relations back on rails if not on the road to trust and confidence.
Pak skipper Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Akhtar (if he makes it to the playing squad) are famous for their on-field tempers. So are India’s Harbhajan Singh, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh. One would like to presume that Afridi merely engaged in some pre-match mind gaming by discounting Sachin Tendulkar’s much-awaited 100th international ton against his team. He’d better be warned by his minders of the limits of competitive machismo in a game that has come to blend diplomacy with sports.
One hopes the presence in the stands of top leaders of the two countries will have a sobering influence; that the players will set an example for the audience to follow. There is a precedent already the teams and cricket fans from either side can follow— the 2005 Indo-Pak series that saw Pakistani fans lead India’s victory march in Lahore. The spectacle is one constant of hope in the India-Pakistan album of tragic snap-shots.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the architect of that memorable sporting encounter in the wake of his January 2004 pact with Pervez Musharraf. He gave the go-ahead for the series despite strong opposition from within the BJP. Leading the saffron skeptics then was L K Advani. They felt an untoward incident during the Indian team’s Pakistan visit could blow up the NDA’s chances in the Lok Sabha polls later that year.
Cricket won. But the BJP-led coalition lost out at the hustings. The situation today is no different. The Mohali match coincides with elections to five state assemblies the UPA desperately needs to win to resurrect its scam-battered profile. And Singh’s gamble could well prove to be a double-edged sword for the Congress and its allies in Kerala, West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu, besides Pondicherry, with sizeable minority votes. Any kind of polarization triggered by the outcome of the match and the talks with Pakistan could cost the UPA dear. More so when public mood in India isn’t supportive yet for re-engaging with the western neighbour with multiple centers of power and an uninspiring record in pursing the perpetrators of the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai.
Vajpayee took the risk after repairing the atmospherics post-Kargil and the terror strike on Parliament. He even made Musharraf commit to preventing terror threats against India from the Pakistani soil. In comparison, Singh’s groundwork looks weaker, almost brittle, barring unconfirmed reports that the Gilani regime has the Pak Army’s backing in resuming talks with New Delhi.
But the fauj alone isn’t a threat to any future peace-track. Vandals of other hue lurk behind the surface. Till they are eliminated, contained or neutralized, symbolic bonhomie wouldn’t kindle any bonfire of substance. That should be Singh’s message to Gilani at Mohali.