India-Pakistan relations – a challenge at the best of times, and in the doldrums since the terrorist attacks on Mumbai of November 2008 – received an unexpected boost last month from an unlikely source: cricket. When the two countries became semi-finalists in the game’s quadrennial World Cup, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited his Pakistani counterpart, Yusuf Reza Gilani, to watch the game with him in Mohali, with talks over dinner. Though the resulting thaw has involved no substantive policy decisions, Singh has nonetheless changed the narrative of the countries’ relations, and seized control of a stalemated process.
Some Indian critics are less than enthused. India’s government suspended talks with Pakistan after the horrific attacks on Mumbai. By talking again at such a high level, despite there being no significant progress in Pakistan in bringing the perpetrators to justice, India, the critics charge, has in effect surrendered to Pakistani intransigence
Indeed, the critics point out that the wide-ranging and comprehensive talks agreed to by the two sides are the old “composite dialogue” under a new label. It was this very dialogue that India justifiably called off after Mumbai: there was no point talking to people whose territory and institutions were being used to attack and kill Indians.
The fear in some circles in India remains that Singh’s government has run out of ideas when it comes to dealing with Pakistan – or at least that it has no good alternatives to a counterproductive military attack on the sources of terrorism or a stagnant silence. Yet it is also clear that “not talking” is not much of a policy. Pakistan can deny its shared history with India, but India cannot change its geography. Pakistan is next door, and it can no more be ignored than a thorn piercing one’s side.
India’s refusal to talk to Pakistan did contribute, together with Western (especially American) diplomatic efforts, to securing some initial Pakistani cooperation, including the arrest of Lashkar-e-Taiba operative Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi and six of his co-conspirators. But this co-operation had dried up, and India's continued reticence had long passed its use-by date. The refusal to resume dialogue had stopped producing any fresh results, and the only argument that justified it – that it was a source of leverage – gave some in India the illusion of influence over events that the government did not in fact possess.
Ironically, it was India – the victim of terrorist attacks financed, dispatched, and directed from Pakistan – that had come to seem intransigent and unaccommodating. The transcendent reality of life on the subcontinent is that it has always been India that wished to live in peace. India is, at bottom, a status quo power that would like to be left alone to concentrate on its economic development; Pakistan is the troublesome rebel, needling and bleeding its neighbor in an effort to change the power balance and wrest control of a part of Indian territory (Kashmir).
Refusing to talk didn’t change any of that, but it brought India no rewards. On the contrary, it imposed a cost: by appearing stubbornly truculent, India allowed Pakistan to appear reasonable and conciliatory, tarnishing India’s international image as a constructive force for peace.
The thaw engendered by the two prime ministers – meeting, devoid of rancor, at a major sporting event, which Pakistan narrowly lost to India’s eventual world champions – recognized that simply talking can achieve constructive results. Dialogue can identify and narrow the differences between the two countries on those bilateral issues that can be addressed.
Of course, not every issue that divides India and Pakistan can be resolved across a table, at least not right now. But specific problems like trade, the military standoff on the Siachen glacier, the territorial border at Sir Creek, and water flows through the Wullar Barrage are certainly amenable to resolution through dialogue. Progress on the big questions – the Kashmir dispute and Pakistan’s use of terrorism as an instrument of policy – will require much more groundwork and constructive, gradual action.
But, as Singh has realized, just talking about these questions can make clear what India’s bottom lines are and the minimum standards of civilized conduct that India expects from its neighbor. And, should it prove necessary, dialogue can also be used to send a few tough signals.
“Cricket diplomacy” is not new on the subcontinent. It was tried twice before, each time with Pakistani military rulers traveling to India. General Zia ul-Haq’s visit to watch a match in Jaipur in 1986 was an exercise in cynicism, since it was aimed at defusing tensions stoked by his own policy of fomenting and aiding Sikh militant secessionism in India. General Pervez Musharraf’s visit to a cricket stadium in Delhi in 2005 came at a better time in the countries’ relations, but, in hindsight, foreshadowed the sharp reversal three years later.
Watching cricket does not necessarily lead to improved dialogue. But when two countries are genuinely prepared to engage each other, a grand sporting occasion can be a useful instrument to signal the change. That is what the “spirit of Mohali” has brought about. Now it is time to see if and how that spirit translates into genuine progress on the ground.
Shashi Tharoor, a former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and UN Under- Secretary General, is a member of India’s parliament and the author of a dozen books, including India from Midnight to the Millennium and Nehru: the Invention of India.