Leaders to meet as India and Pakistan play, but what they’ll discuss is a mystery
With careful diplomatic scripting, India and Pakistan began talking again this week. Officials from both countries convened in New Delhi to discuss security issues and pave the way for future meetings between more powerful officials. The talks were billed as baby steps, a modest restarting of a critical but stalled diplomatic dialogue.
Then, unexpectedly, a cricket match intervened – and almost overnight, the scope of the dialogue has suddenly changed.
When India and Pakistan meet Wednesday afternoon for a semifinal match in cricket’s World Cup, the prime ministers of both countries will be seated together in the stands. Now, the question is what exactly they will talk about and whether a breakthrough is possible between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
The surprise development is the latest gambit on Pakistan by the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh. Last weekend, when it became clear that both countries had advanced to the semifinal, Mr. Singh issued a surprise invitation to his Pakistani counterpart, Yousaf Raza Gilani, to join him for the match in the Indian city of Mohali. Mr. Gilani eventually accepted. (Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, declined an invitation.)
For the Indian subcontinent, where few things stir public passions more than cricket and politics, the twinning of such a high-stakes cricket match with such high-stakes diplomacy has created an irresistible spectacle. An enormous audience, possibly in the hundreds of millions, is expected to watch the match on television, while India has ordered a massive security clampdown in Mohali, including a no-flight zone over the city, to protect against terrorism.
Mr. Singh’s invitation is another example of how he has repeatedly tried to advance diplomacy with Pakistan, even when some members of his own Indian National Congress party have resisted. In New Delhi, Mr. Singh’s overture has drawn a mixed reaction; some analysts have praised his determination to push forward, while others have expressed skepticism, seeing the meeting as something of a political stunt that risks undermining the lower-level talks that began this week.
”It has caught everybody by surprise,” said Brahma Chellaney, a strategic affairs analyst in New Delhi. ”In diplomacy, you have to do the preparatory work first if you want to have a result. This sounds like an impulsive move.”
Harish Khare, a spokesman for Mr. Singh, described the invitation as a ”spur of the moment” decision made after it became clear that the two countries would meet in the semifinals. He said there is no specific agenda, nor any structured dialogue; rather, he said, the meeting is an opportunity to build trust, enjoy the match and have ”an exchange of ideas.”
”The prime minister just said, ‘Come along,”’ Mr. Khare said. ”Of course, there will be some talk. But it is not a summit meeting. And it will not interfere with the ongoing dialogue.”
The unsettled relationship between India and Pakistan lies beneath many of the festering problems in south Asia. The two countries have a decades-old dispute over Kashmir and a host of other conflicts. Diplomatic progress was shattered in 2008, when Pakistani-based militants conducted terror attacks in Mumbai that killed at least 163 people. The United States has long prodded both countries toward negotiations in hopes that defused tensions, especially over Kashmir, would encourage the Pakistani military to shift resources away from India toward fighting terror groups inside Pakistan.
The initial step in this latest resumption of dialogue was supposed to be the meetings that began Monday in New Delhi. The Pakistani interior secretary, Qamar Zaman, met with the Indian home secretary, G.K. Pillai, to discuss the Mumbai attacks and other security issues. (On Tuesday, the two said in a joint statement that Pakistan had agreed to a visit by an Indian judicial commission investigating the attacks, The Associated Press reported.)
But these meetings were quickly upstaged by Mr. Singh’s cricket overture.
Analysts note that ”cricket diplomacy” has been tried in the past, with mixed results. In 1987, Pakistan’s then-president, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, attended an India-Pakistan match, but relations soon deteriorated. More recently, in 2005, Mr. Singh invited then-President Pervez Musharraf to an India-Pakistan match in New Delhi, ushering in a period of secret back-channel talks that almost culminated in a breakthrough deal on Kashmir.
Now, though, many analysts say the political situation is far different. Both Mr. Gilani and Mr. Singh are politically wounded at home; Indian analysts argue that Mr. Gilani is actually far less politically powerful than Pakistan’s military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. Meanwhile, Mr. Singh has been battered by allegations of corruption leveled against his government.
Yet the cricket invitation does seem to have enhanced a feeling of good will on both sides. Pakistan announced the early release of a longtime Indian prisoner – if, admittedly, by only a few months.
”You will see relations become more friendly and cordial, even outside the cricket grounds,” predicted Abid Saeed, the press counselor for the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. He said a delegation of about 50 ministers and officials was traveling with Mr. Gilani to the match.
C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, applauded Mr. Singh’s gambit, noting that for all the diplomacy and highly structured meetings by lower-level officials over the decades, progress is usually only made when the top leaders are directly engaged. Mr. Mohan said that if the cricket diplomacy results in warmer relations, Mr. Singh should visit Pakistan as his next bold gesture.
”Right or wrong, India’s Pakistan policy has always been driven by the gut instincts of the prime ministers rather than the carefully crafted approaches by the diplomatists,” Mr. Mohan wrote Tuesday in The Indian Express, a leading English-language newspaper. ”If the mood at Mohali turns out to be good, Dr. Singh and Gilani might help give the dialogue at the bureaucratic level a much needed boost.”