Narendra Modi calls Nawaz Sharif, opens new Indo-Pak innings

  • Jayanth Jacob, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Feb 14, 2015 07:51 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi rang up Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on Friday to wish his cricket team luck ahead of a World Cup grudge match between the arch-rivals this week, signalling a thaw in the frosty ties between the neighbours.

Modi also said he was sending foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to Islamabad as part of a regional tour, the first top-ranking visit since India broke off talks last year in protest against the Pakistani high commissioner meeting Kashmiri separatist leaders in Delhi.

The Prime Minister said on Twitter that he spoke to the leaders of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, apart from Pakistan, to wish them luck in the cricket tournament being held in Australia and New Zealand.

“Cricket connects people in our region & promotes goodwill. Hope players from SAARC region play with passion & bring laurels to the region,” he tweeted. “Would be sending our new Foreign Secretary on a SAARC Yatra soon to further strengthen our ties.”

Modi’s cricket diplomacy comes after India-Pakistan relations soured last year over increased firing along the borders and cancelled peace talks.

The setback came shortly after the countries agreed to resume dialogue in May when Sharif attended Modi's inauguration.

During the seven-minute conversation – that took place a day after US President Barack Obama spoke to the Pakistani premier— Modi recalled Sharif playing in a warm-up World Cup match in 1987 alongside Imran Khan, Pakistan’s World Cup winning captain-turned politician, in the tournament hosted by the two neighbours.

Millions of fans from the two countries are expected to watch Sunday's clash on television, while thousands of others are set to flock to the Adelaide Oval in Australia.

“Cricket is a metaphor for connectivity in the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries and Prime Minister Narendra Modi practices multi-layered diplomacy,” external affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.

Pakistan responded cautiously to Modi's overture, as an aide close to Sharif told HT over the phone from Islamabad that they were always in favour of dialogue and India was the one to have called off foreign secretary-level talks.

“Our position has always been that India should make the first move and Modi did that today. We welcome the Indian foreign secretary's visit to Islamabad and hope it will not just be a ‘Hi, hello’ trip,” he said. “There is no glee just because of one phone call, but we are neither playing it up nor playing it down. We hope Jaishankar is coming to work towards the resumption of the dialogue process and not just for a courtesy call.”

Though the SAARC trip, likely to begin next month, is aimed at following up on various schemes Modi announced for the region during last year’s summit in Nepal, the most significant aspect would be the foreign secretary’s visit to Pakistan for discussing bilateral issues.

“The Prime Minister, recalling his meeting with the Prime Minister of India on 27th May, 2014, welcomed the visit of Indian foreign secretary to Pakistan to discuss all issues of common interest,” Nawaz Sharif’s office said.

This is not the first time the two countries have used cricket diplomacy to break an impasse.

In 2011, then-Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani met counterpart Manmohan Singh during a World Cup cricket match in Chandigarh, using the same cover employed in 2005 by then-President Pervez Musharraf for a meeting with Singh during an India-Pakistan cricket match.

(With agency inputs)

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