The India-Pakistan World Cup semi-final in Mohali, India is in just two days (cricket cup, World Cup, it’s a big cup…), and my Facebook and Twitter feeds are oversaturated with anxiety-riddled , nail-biting discussion about the match. News agencies and leaders alike are gleefully using the term “cricket diplomacy” to describe the well-timed restart of high-level talks between the two countries.
The Express Tribune quoted a government spokesman Sunday who stated, “It was decided in response to the Indian prime minister’s invitation that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani will visit India to witness the semi-final cricket match.” On Monday, Prime Minister Gilani (Jadoogar Gilani) further emphasized that his meeting with Indian PM Manmohan Singh during the semifinals will “help improve relations between the two countries,” while the Indian High Commission noted Gilani’s presence will have a positive impact on Indo-Pak talks.
But will it?
I’ve written a number of posts on this blog about sports diplomacy, most recently highlighting the efforts by tennis players Aisam ul-Haq Qureshi and Rohann Bopanna, i.e., the Indo-Pak Express, who showed how sports can transcend boundaries and bring countries together. Last fall, Qureshi told Sports Illustrated,
Obviously we have to look at the bigger picture. Nelson Mandela, Arthur Ashe, all those big legends: Definitely you can change people’s minds through sports. Football does that; there’s no reason tennis can’t do it. Our combination is very rare and we’re getting all this publicity and hype. And I feel like we can use it to change peoples’ minds. Minds are changing anyway. Every time Indians and Pakistanis come and support us, minds are changing.
Do I believe that sports can act as a tool of diplomacy? Most definitely. But there’s a reason why it’s considered a form of citizen diplomacy. This can in turn have some influence on state actors at the top, but its major impact is on breaking barriers and transcending boundaries between people. Despite constant stalls and obstacles in the Indo-Pak peace process, we have seen grassroots efforts take rather positive steps in recent years, from Indo-Pak school exchanges and dialogues (see Citizens Archive of Pakistan), to media initiatives like Aman ki Asha, and Pakistan/Bollywood crossovers.
But it is interesting when state leaders use such tools of diplomacy as a supposed part of their high-level talks. In 2005, Singh invited former President Musharraf to India for a cricket series, telling lawmakers in a speech at the Indian Parliament, “Nothing brings the people of the subcontinent together more than our love for cricket and Bollywood.” In 1987, General Zia ul-Haq also attended a test match between India and Pakistan in Jaipur – “a visit that apparently helped cool a flare-up in tensions,” noted the NY Times.
This time around, though, I’m skeptical how goodwill gestures will amount to more than just gestures. The problems between India and Pakistan are complex, to say the least, and the trust deficit, particularly after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 is wide. Yes, Pakistan freed an Indian national, Gopal Das, who was in a Pakistani prison for 27 years as an alleged spy, as an another goodwill gesture before the match Wednesday, but the two states have to get through talks about the Mumbai attacks and India’s alleged presence in Balochistan. Cricket may be an ice-breaker, but it is unlikely that these issues and distrust will be resolved this time around. According to Al Jazeera English, “some Pakistanis are said to be sceptical that Singh is simply playing to his domestic audience and trying to distract from a string of corruption scandals that have effectively paralysed the Congress-led government.”
For now, here’s to a good match between the two countries. Thoughts on state relations can be left in the comment section.