Singh and Gilani have to cover longer than those 22 yards

On his invitation, Pakistan prime minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani and his wife Fauzia Gilani will be reaching Mohali near Chandighar on Wednesday to watch the World Cup semi-final match between India and Pakistan.

Cricket – a passion in the sub-continent – had in fact found its place in India-Pakistan diplomacy in early 1950s itself. Horrible memories of partition and the war on Kashmir in 1947 and ’48 notwithstanding, India had not only recommended to the Imperial Cricket Conference (now International Cricket Council) to recognise Pakistan as a Test-playing nation, but then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had also got the Board of Control for Cricket in India to extend an invitation to the neighbouring country’s team to come for a five-Test series soon after the latter got recognition on July 28, 1952.

Pakistan had thus made its debut in international cricket with a Test with India in Delhi in October, 1952. Hundreds of Pakistani cricket buffs had travelled to India to watch the matches, raising hopes that the love for the game could help both the nations move on, leaving behind the terrible past – hopes that were to be raised repeatedly over the next six decades, only to be belied repeatedly.

 Gilani is not the first Pakistani leader to visit India to watch a match between the two countries’ cricket teams. And he may not be the last either. But this will be the most significant interaction between the two leaders on the subcontinent’s soil in three years after India witnessed the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai, in which Pakistan’s hand is well-documented. Singh will play host to Gilani just a day after home secretary G K Pillai and his Pakistani counterpart Qamar Uz Zaman would conclude their two-day parleys in New Delhi. Pillai-Zaman meet will mark the restart of the structured talks between the two countries. This will be followed by several rounds of talks by the officials of the two countries over the next three months and the agenda includes counterterrorism, progress of the trial of 26/11 accused in Pakistan, confidence building measures, Siachen, Sir Creek and Wullar Barrage or Tulbul Navigation Project.

 Though New Delhi still shies away from calling it resumption of the ‘composite dialogue,’ all the eight issues once covered by the stalled process are now on the agenda of the fresh rounds of talks. The outcomes of the series of parleys are to be reviewed at the foreign ministers’ level dialogue, which is likely to be held in July.

Thaw in the relation

The new template for engagement was finalised during foreign secretary Nirupama Rao’s talks with her counterpart Salman Bashir at Thimphu on February 7 last. But New Delhi’s moves towards ending the post 26/11 diplomatic chill with Islamabad had in fact started long back on July 16, 2009, in the Egyptian city of Sharm el Sheikh, where Singh had met Gilani on the sidelines of a NAM summit. A real thaw came when Singh again met Gilani on the sidelines of a SAARC summit at Thimphu in April 2010. But the follow-up talks between external affairs minister S M Krishna and his then counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi ended in spectacular disaster, with New Delhi accusing Islamabad of having an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach. Pakistan on the other hand accused India of being ‘selective’ in its approach. Seven months later, Rao-Bashir meet finally resulted in a breakthrough.

 The cynics in India might have doubts about the rationale of re-engaging with Pakistan, particularly as the latter has hardly made any sincere attempt to speed up the trial of the seven 26/11 plotters in the Anti-Terrorism Court in Rawalpindi. The Jamat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed is still free and often spits venom at India. But is it any realistic for New Delhi to expect more sincere actions from Islamabad, particularly after we saw those pictures of Pakistani lawyers garlanding the smiling assassin of Punjab governor Salman Taseer?

An official involved with formulating New Delhi’s policy to deal with Islamabad says that India’s moves to engage with Pakistan might not guarantee success or sincere reciprocation, but avoiding the dialogue too would hardly help in getting the troubled and troubling neighbour see reasons.

One will hardly be surprised by mishaps when it comes to India-Pakistan relations. History tells us that the latest spell of bonhomie over cricket too might not last long. But then, as a retired diplomat put it, we need abundant caution and patience while dealing with our difficult neighbour. The tortuous history of the past 64 years has perhaps made the distance between the two nations a little longer than those 22 yards on the cricket pitch where the two teams will battle. But, hopefully, the negotiators in either side will take the momentum from a new sense of comaraderie that the match has generated.

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