Brouhaha over former cricketer and current politician Navjot Singh Sidhu hugging Pakistan’s army chief at Imran Khan’s swearing in ceremony as Prime Minister is not just manufactured and funny, it is quite frankly senseless.
The rancorous coverage that has followed shows immense silliness in sections of the media (and even more, social media) about foreign affairs and human interaction.
But I’ll desist from debating the Sidhu-Bajwa ‘hug’ further. What interests me, and is germane to these sports pages, is the possibility of bilateral cricket ties between India and Pakistan being restored.
There seems to be a clear signal from Imran Khan about this. It is not incidental that among the handful of guests invited from India for his oath-taking ceremony were cricketers Sidhu, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. This will not have been lost on anybody, least of all in his own country.
Apart from his former Pakistan teammates, I can’t recall seeing, or reading about, any other cricketer being present: Not Sir Viv Richards, Sir Ian Botham, Ian Chappell, Arjuna Ranatunga, to name a few of Imran’s great contemporaries which makes the role he sees for cricket in diplomacy with India unambiguous.
Equally, the Indian government showed fine sensibility in directing the High Commissioner in Islamabad to present Imran with a bat signed by current Indian players when his becoming Prime Minister was confirmed. The gift could well have been anything else.
There is a nuance in this byplay that needs to be fleshed out into something more substantial and meaningful. Cricket (and by extension all sports) is an excellent vehicle for tiding over existing problems, which the Prime Ministers of both countries have officially spoken about in the past week.
Of course there are apprehensions and pitfalls. PM Modi has reiterated the country’s grave concern about cross-border terrorism, which PM Imran, if he is serious about “taking two steps if India takes one,” as he proclaimed even before taking oath, must address.
But why should this preclude playing cricket — or any other sport for that matter – even now? True, Pakistan is beset with security issues and in India there a political ramifications to consider. But even showing intent would be a start.
Much as the jingoism in parts of the media (on both sides of the border) would suggest, we are not at war with Pakistan. Diplomatic relations and trade between the two countries continue even as talks for resolving vexing issues are being pursued through other channels.
In fact, sport can be leveraged to better facilitate, if not give speed, to the pursuit of peace. Since recently deceased former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s legacy is being discussed widely these days, it is worth noting the huge efforts he put in to get Indo-Pak relations on an even keel through cricket.
Vajpayee, as foreign minister in the Janata government, then with the Jan Sangh, used cricket to broker a peace deal when he visited Pakistan in 1978. There had been no bilateral series between the two countries for 17 years.
In 2004, heading a BJP-led government at the centre, Vajpayee (and Deputy PM-cum-Home Minister L K Advani) cleared a tour to Pakistan just five years after the Kargil war.
In the past century-odd, it has been amply evident that sport helps bring countries with minor or major differences – even conflicts – to the negotiating table better than any other area of endeavor. Trade can be more important but does not come as free of rancour or cynicism as sport does.
In the 1970s, for instance, “Ping Pong diplomacy” was used to soothe ties between the US and China. An American table tennis team taking part in the 31st World Championships in Japan was invited to China in 1971.
Nine government officials and four players took up the all-expenses-paid invitation, becoming the first Americans to step foot in China since 1949. As Time magazine put it, “the ping was heard round the world”. This single event redefined global geopolitics. Sport is one of the easiest and cheapest ways of achieving normalcy between countries. In the sub-continent, there is nothing as powerful as cricket. It resonates the most among people and should be used as a symbol of promoting understanding, if not complete peace.
I’ll bat for a resumption of cricket ties. And with a cricketer as Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, let’s not overlook some diplomatic brownie points to be won too!