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India-Pak relations: Time for cricket

Publication Date : 24-07-2012


All of a sudden, something is stirring on the India-Pakistan diplomatic front. It is only a few weeks since the two foreign secretaries met and ended up with little to show for their pains, their meeting being overshadowed by the "Abu Jundal" affair which saw the repatriation from Saudi Arabia of an Indian national deeply implicated in the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, someone that India has been trying to capture for many years.

As more and more information pertaining to the attack kept tumbling out, hapless Pak officials were forced to repeat yet again that their agencies had no part in the murderous attacks, a denial that carries less and less conviction as evidence continues to pile up to the contrary, and not from Indian sources alone.

It would have been no great surprise if the tempo of bilateral exchanges had been deliberately slowed down in the light of the revelations provided by the repatriated prisoner. But that is not what happened.

In a new twist to the unpredictable path of India-Pakistan relations, cricket diplomacy has been once more invoked to give a fresh complexion to events. Rather then put up new barriers after the previous, unsatisfactory meeting, the two sides have agreed on what looks like a significant effort to ease and ameliorate relations. There is to be a series of cricket matches between the two teams.

Moreover, the matches will be held on Indian soil, not in third-party venues. A considerable flood of Pakistani spectators are to be permitted to come and view the matches, less than may be demanded but nevertheless a substantial number. With this announcement, much excitement has been generated, both countries being in the grip of a great cricket rivalry that excites and animates countless numbers of their citizens: indeed, a gesture involving cricket has become a time honoured means of conveying mellower sentiments from one side to the other.

The rather halting progress of the official dialogue, which continues in its own manner, has been abruptly upstaged by the impending sporting contest and by speculation about what it implies for the overall relationship.

While these cricket-related events have been taking place, there has been renewed speculation about the possibility of a visit to Pakistan by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Such conjectures arise fairly regularly but this time there seems to be a little more real expectation that the long expected visit might indeed materialize. Rumours to this effect are not especially strong but have been fairly persistent, so maybe the time is coming. It has also become evident that if real progress is desired, there is no escape from engagement at the top.

The official dialogue is a useful and desirable mechanism, and it is necessary that the two sides should remain engaged with each other.

But it is evident by now that, of itself, this form of dialogue cannot be expected to lead to a breakthrough that reorders the relationship along more constructive lines. For that, higher level engagement is needed.

The foreign ministers are to be in contact to discuss some of the outstanding issues but major steps forward can hardly be envisaged without the topmost leaders showing readiness to engage with each other and take the initiative.

At the same time, it would not be very meaningful to pitch for a prime ministerial visit that did not lead to real movement in the relationship. The leadership has to consider what it can do during such a visit, what decisive steps are possible. The confidence-building process has been in progress for quite some time and it has yielded some good results, like the bus service across the line of control (LOC) which has had an impact: complaints about its limited reach and benefit are a paradoxical indication of increasing demand for the service.

Similarly, the trade across the LOC, even though it is of small dimension, has brought a measure of prosperity in the border areas. In fact, cross-LOC trade is poised for very substantial enlargement but is being held back by its limited remit: it is not clear whether it should cater only to intra-J&K trade or have a wider compass. A comparable case relates to regular trade across the international border which has been eased significantly but continues to be impeded by slow-moving regulators on the spot with ideas of their own.

This has become a bane of the bilateral relationship. There is too much history, too many precedents, bearing on virtually every issue, and it is very difficult for those responsible for implementing even mildly innovative new rules to fight free of the thickets of precedence. Thus cavernous new facilities at Wagah remain under-utilised while matters of procedure preoccupy the officials.

It is in these circumstances that those who seek easier mutual access, having seen how officials get bogged down, pin their hopes on higher level intervention by ministers and more authoritative state functionaries. Of course, a summit-level visit is not to be sought or justified for such purposes, but it could have the beneficial side effect of easing the procedural blockage that deflects good intentions.

A full-scale prime ministerial visit would inevitably be judged by what it achieves in the central areas of concern--matters of war and peace, of cross-border terror, of mistrust and suspicion. The public seems ready for a change of direction but it is not certain how the governing classes would react--deeply ingrained attitudes are not to be removed or altered overnight. Hence leaders must be cautious and not be swept into premature gestures, of which there have been one or two in recent years, to the detriment of neighbourly relations, and of the standing of the government itself. Yet to avoid initiative and sit tight at this juncture could mean another tantalizing loss of opportunity. It is a fine balance and a difficult judgment.

If current indications of a thaw are correct and a brisker tempo in bilateral relations is indeed on the cards, then there is no shortage of useful initiatives for governments to consider. In J&K, as already mentioned, progress is desired on the dictum that while lines on the map cannot be removed, they can be made irrelevant.

More generally, the trading communities on both sides, after long hesitation, are now eager to expand trade exchanges, having realised how much benefit they can bring. Most important is to build peace and cooperation, something that requires the personalised conviction and commitment of the leaders.

There are many proposals made over the years to formalise structures of peace and establish cooperation in sensitive areas of state activity.

Thus much can be done to give real substance to a meeting at the highest level should it take place. But it remains a difficult challenge for the leadership.

The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary


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