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Cricket diplomacy

March 26, 2011

INDIAN Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s invitation to President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to watch the Cricket World Cup semi-final between the two countries is not quite a googly — cricket diplomacy has been used in the past — but can something come of the gesture? First, the positives. The peace process, stalled since November 2008, appears to be cautiously edging back on track. The interior secretaries of the two countries are to meet on Monday-Tuesday in New Delhi; next month, the commerce and trade secretaries are to meet; and in July the foreign secretaries and ministers are scheduled to meet in New Delhi. All these meetings will take place in the light of the reasonably promising joint statement issued in Thimphu in February by the foreign secretaries, which read in part:

“[The foreign secretaries] agreed on the need for a constructive dialogue between India and Pakistan to resolve all outstanding issues. They affirmed the need to carry forward the dialogue process.”

Off the cricket field, there are also some quick diplomatic ‘wins’ that are within grasp. Siachen and Sir Creek remain two problems to which the solutions have long been known and all but agreed on. But in Pakistan there is a perception that the Indian military has dug its heels in on both issues. For example, from a military perspective, India has the upper hand in Siachen and that appears to be something the Indian military is unwilling to give up. Similarly, a more relaxed visa regime and some trade concessions by both sides are within reach — if both sides de-monstrate the necessary maturity and spirit of understanding.

While there are positives to be found in the present situation, there remain many reasons to be cautious. The Indian prime minister may have his legacy in mind while reaching out to Pakistan, but scandals at home have weakened both his and his government’s position. Even if he wants to, it is far from clear if the Indian prime minister can go beyond gestures and offer something substantive. Equally, on this side of the border, there are reasons to be cautious about the establishment’s ability to compromise on India at the moment. From Indian involvement in Afghanistan to India’s hydro projects on rivers that are a lifeline for Pakistan, there are serious concerns here about India’s actions that could have a chilling effect on whatever gains the diplomats may be able to engineer. But both sides must be careful to not endlessly roam the space between a breakdown in ties and a breakthrough — talks for talks’ sake will fatigue both publics.