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Sports by other means

india Updated: Sep 14, 2011 14:36 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times
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Two stories highlight the uncertainties of cricketing diplomacy: at Sharjah some years ago, Mohammad Azharuddin's boys were clobbering away the Pakistani bowling attack. There was pin-drop silence in the stadium. But then arose a slogan: "Allah ki badi shaan hai, Azhar Musalmaan hai" (Allah is so great, Azhar is a Muslim).

In 1992, Sunil Gavaskar was the only man to wager on Imran Khan's team before it lifted the World Cup after a tentative start in Australia. That made Gavaskar an instant hero in Pakistan, with Nawaz Sharif inviting him as a special guest at a reception hosted for the champions in Islamabad.

Mohali 2011 is about optics. The real match between India and Pakistan is across the negotiating table. And in that, there isn't going to be any winner or loser. Not in the visible future.

So why did Manmohan Singh reach out to his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani all of a sudden? Apparently, to create an ambience for the resumed dialogue and to send out a message to the world that India does not abandon reasonable conduct even when wronged or betrayed.

This could be why Singh dovetailed his unilateral gesture with the March 28-29 home secretary-level talks - at the core of which is the glacial Pakistani probe into the conspiracy part of Mumbai's 26/11 terrorist attacks.

Singh's Mohali meeting with Gilani a day later would come in handy, therefore, to take stock of the outcome in New Delhi. For their part, the Pakistanis have lately been harping on the saffron twist in the Samjhauta Express attack to frustrate India's demand for tangible action in the Mumbai case.

I'm sceptical about Singh's Mohali initiative. It could boomerang badly on the resumed dialogue if spectators turn violent or players misbehave on the field. The cricketers must desist from sledging. One untoward incident could damage the ambience and by implication the tenuous efforts to put bilateral relations back on track.

Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Akhtar (if he does play today) are famous for their on-field tempers. So are Harbhajan Singh, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh. One would like to presume that Afridi merely engaged in some pre-match mindgames by discounting Sachin Tendulkar's much-awaited 100th international century.

One hopes the presence in the stands of the premiers of the two countries will have a sobering influence on the players who in turn will set an example for the spectators in the stands.

There is a precedent that fans from either side can emulate: the 2004 India-Pakistan series saw Pakistani fans leading India's victory march in Lahore. The spectacle remains a constant hope in the India-Pakistan album of tragic snap-shots. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the architect of that memorable sporting encounter in the wake of his January 2004 pact with Pervez Musharraf.

He gave the go-ahead for the series despite strong opposition from within the BJP who felt an untoward incident during the Indian team's Pakistan visit could destroy the NDA's chances in the Lok Sabha polls later that year. Cricket won, even though the BJP-led coalition lost at the hustings. But the Vajpayee enterprise yielded a bumper crop of peace for three successive years till Musharraf ran into opposition at home.

The situation is no different today. The Mohali match coincides with polls in five state assemblies. The UPA desperately needs to win to resurrect its scam-battered public profile. Singh's gamble could well prove to be a double-edged sword for the Congress and its allies with a sizeable minority votes.

Any kind of communal polarisation triggered by the outcome of the match and the talks with Pakistan could cost the UPA dear. More so when the public mood in India isn't supportive of re-engaging with Pakistan.

Vajpayee took the risk after repairing the atmospherics post-Kargil and after the terrorist strike on Parliament. He even made Musharraf commit to preventing terror threats against India from Pakistani soil. In comparison, Singh's groundwork looks weaker, almost brittle, barring unconfirmed reports that the Gilani regime has the Pakistani army's backing in resuming talks with New Delhi.

But the Pakistani army isn't the only threat to any future peace. Vandals of other hues lurk behind the surface. Till they are eliminated or contained, symbolic bonhomie won't kindle any lasting peace. That should be Singh's message to Gilani. Otherwise Mohali will be just an optical illusion.