India-Pakistan – cricket, spooks and peace

March 27, 2011

cricket  refugee“Cricket diplomacy” has always been one of the great staples of the relationship between India and Pakistan. The two countries have tried and failed before to use their shared enthusiasm for cricket to build bridges, right back to the days of Pakistan President Zia ul-Haq, if not earlier.

So when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced last week that he was inviting Prime Minister Yusuf  Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari to watch the semi-finals of the Cricket World Cup in Mohali, India, the temptation was to dismiss it as an old idea.

Yes, it would be the first visit by a leader of either country to the other since the November 2008 attack on Mumbai.  Yes, the invitation came at a time when relations between the two countries were already thawing. And yes, the Middle East is changing so fast that you would expect –  in the way that warring siblings do — that India and Pakistan would bury their differences at a time when the outside world has become so unpredictable.

But the instinct for cynicism is unerring. India and Pakistan have tried and failed to make peace for so long that it is easy, lazily easy, to predict that this latest initiative will also come to nothing. Former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, himself a participant in cricket diplomacy in 2005, wrote it off in 2000:

`”We have been trying all kinds of bus diplomacy and cricket diplomacy and everything. Why has all of it failed? It has failed because the core issue was not being addressed … because there is only one dispute, the Kashmir dispute … others are just aberrations, minor differences of opinion which can be resolved,” he told The Hindu in an interview in 2000.

Yet even after Mumbai, even after years of fighting over Kashmir, even after all the failed diplomatic initiatives of the past, I still found myself regularly  checking on Google and Twitter to see whether Pakistan had accepted the invitation to the cricket match. When Zardari’s spokeswoman Farahnaz Ispahani announced on her Twitter feed that Gilani would be going to Mohali, the news was retweeted with the speed once reserved by traditional media for attendance at U.S.-Soviet summits.

Over the years, each time something like this has happened, enthusiasm about a breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations has been swiftly disabused.

Yet cynicism, lazy or otherwise, notwithstanding, there are a few reasons why we should allow for the possibility that this time might be different.

The first is Pakistan’s reassessment of its relationship with the United States.  For years Pakistan has looked to America to bolster its defences against India.  Yet America will never give Pakistan what it wants in terms of absolute loyalty. By definition, if you are in a “strategic relationship”, you expect your ally to take your side against your enemy. The United States, trying to straddle its alliance with Pakistan with its strategic and economic interests in India, can, and never will, do that.

And Pakistan, increasingly unwilling to put up with what it sees as bullying by the United States in return for financial aid, is arguably growing out of an unhealthy dependency.  Nowadays, you hear arguments that Pakistan is a big country of some 170 million people which no longer wishes to be a supplicant to the United States, and which, as described by Pakistani journalist Mosharraf Zaidi, is discovering a new kind of nationalism. For Pakistan, achieving that independence from the United States is easier done if it is not also at loggerheads with India.

The second reason to think that this time might be different comes from an increasing understanding of the need to improve relations between the intelligence agencies of the two countries.  Both the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) are ultimately inheritors of a system set up by the British to maintain colonial rule and as such remain secretive and somewhat apart from the countries they serve.

Their ways of challenging each other, whether in Kashmir or Afghanistan, are so rarely debated in the media that we have little idea about what is going on in the behind-the-scenes battles between the ISI and R&AW.

In an interview earlier this year, Musharraf, speaking from his own experience of running Pakistan, was clear that an improvement in relations between the ISI and R&AW was needed.

“ISI and R&AW have always been confrontational, since 1948, since our inception,” he said. “This tit-for-tat has been going on over the last 60 years; both are to blame or not to blame; both should share responsibility for all that is happening.” Adding that it should not just be Pakistan that is blamed, he said,  “It’s mutual. I think India and Pakistan need to sit down and stop this confrontation.”

B. Raman, formerly at R&AW, has made a not too dissimilar argument. Calling for the revival of past contacts between the ISI and R&AW, he wrote that, ”it has always been my view that such liaison contacts on a sustained basis may not lead to any substantive results, but will enable the officers of the two organisations to assess each other in flesh and blood instead of relying on source and media reports.”

The Times of India has meanwhile reported that India is keen to open a dialogue with the Pakistan Army and the ISI to ”open up new possibilities of deepening Indo-Pak engagement”. That would be a major departure for India, which has been very uncomfortable in the past about the idea of talking to the Pakistan Army during periods of democratic government. In a country where the military has always been subvervient to the civilian government, India has traditionally had strong reservations about acknowledging the power of the Pakistan Army in setting foreign and security policy. The Times of India report, if confirmed, and reciprocated, would represent a significant change in the ground rules of India-Pakistan dialogue.

All in all, given the many disappointments of the India-Pakistan peace process over the decades, I would assume that much work has already been done behind-the-scenes to prepare for the ”Mohali thaw”. So I’m not going to write it off as mere cricket diplomacy. It may be bigger than it looks.



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