March 26, 2011

Will Manmohan Singh's cricket diplomacy work?

If history is a marker to judge the future by, then the answer is a definite no. But if you, like me, believe that the future is as unpredictable as the toss that will decide who bats or bowls first in Mohali, then the answer simply is: We don't know whether cricket diplomacy will work or not.

It is indeed a commendable step to invite over Zardari and Gilani to try to kick start a stalled dialogue process. And it will also give Singh a chance to escape the heat of the local issues plaguing his government such as the allegations of graft.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
While there is no doubt that cricket itself stands to gain from the encounter between India and Pakistan on Wednesday, the diplomacy appears uncertain at best. Below are some of the incidents from history that show why cricket diplomacy has been a non-starter.

1. In 1987 Zia ul Haq visited Jaipur to witness a match between India and Pakistan which marked the resumption of cricketing ties between the two countries after 17 years of suspension. However, two years later in 1989 the freedom struggle in Kashmir blew out of proportion and the two countries were back to square zero.

2. In March of 2004 the Indian cricket team visited Pakistan for a series ending a 10 year drought. They were accompanied by Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. India's national security advisor at that time Brajesh Mishra also showed up at the Lahore fixture of the series. He was the one who had designed the declaration of Islamabad in which it was claimed that Musharraf had promised no part of Pakistan would be used for terror activities against India. But that claim was short lived as by the very next year, India was accusing Pakistan of harbouring ill-intentions.

3. In 2005 Musharraf went to India to watch the Pakistani team play in India. Manmohan Singh also watched the match and they both issued a joint statement stating that the "peace process between the two was irreversible". However in 2007 with Musharraf's exit in place, Pakistan and India's future prospects of thrashing out issues appeared bleak at best.

4. In 2009 Gilani and Singh issued another joint statement from Sharm al Sheikh in Egypt pledging to restart the stalled process. However by now it had become apparent that after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India's distrust of Pakistan was at its peak, and Manmohan Singh did not have the support to initiate in any meaningful dialogue to improve ties with Pakistan. The Wikileaks cables showed that.

A clearer picture will emerge after 28th March when the home secretaries' from both sides meet to try to negotiate about the resumption of talks. Till then, Manmohan Singh can only hope for the best till he meets the Pakistani leaders at Mohali.