Six years ago, in early March 2005, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf let it be known to the media in Islamabad that he wished to travel to India to watch one of the India-Pakistan cricket matches that spring. New Delhi was stumped into silence for several days. The instinctual response of many was to view this as a typical Musharraf googly.
India’s ministry of external affairs was still licking its wounds from the Agra summit fiasco. The budget session of Parliament was still in progress, and was being repeatedly disrupted by a contentious opposition. The United Progressive Alliance government was not being allowed to settle down, still being treated as a usurper by a sulking Bharatiya Janata Party.
In the prime minister’s office, a new national security advisor was just settling down into his job, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s own mind was on a major initiative he was pursuing with US President George Bush.
Clearly, Mr Musharraf was not coming just to watch a cricket match. He wanted to come for a summit meeting. Why create further complications with a Musharraf visit? The ghost of Agra haunted the minds of every Pakistan watcher and few were willing to push the PM into troubled waters. A risk averse system suggested ignoring Mr Musharraf’s remarks.
As the PM’s media advisor my worry was the headlines we would get around the world: “Musharraf wants to go to India to watch a cricket match, India says no!”
If the Agra summit’s media circus and fiasco was what was worrying the foreign ministry, then one should be able to deal with that and work out a strategy. A media plan was suggested to the PM and he felt reassured. He decided that he must invite Mr Musharraf.
The naysayers were still urging caution, and seeking time to work on logistics. One suggestion was that Mr Musharraf be invited to the match at Kochi, rather than Delhi. It was pointed out that even if the match was in Port Blair the international and national media would land up there.
Finally, after waiting for several days for his officials to come up with a practical response to Mr Musharraf’s spin, the PM chose to bat for himself. At the end of his long speech in Parliament, replying to the debate on the motion of thanks on the President’s address to parliament, Dr Singh said: “Mr Speaker Sir, there is one matter that I do wish to refer to and that is our relations with Pakistan… After my meeting with General Musharraf on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, all items of composite dialogue are under discussion. We are moving forward and I must say that nothing brings the people of our sub-continent more together than our love for cricket and Bollywood cinema. I am equally conscious of the fact today that even as I speak in this House, I am competing for the nation’s attention with young men like (Virendar) Sehwag and (Asim) Kamal. Perhaps that is how it should be. Indeed, how nice it would be if we conduct our affairs in this august House with the same spirit of sportsmanship that our cricketers exhibit on the playing fields of the sub-continent.”
“Sir, when our citizens went to Pakistan for the last series, they returned with tales of bonhomie and warm hospitality. I am delighted to say that our people have returned this hospitality to the thousands of visitors from Pakistan. Relations between nations are after all nothing more than relations between their people. I am sure that time will work to heal our wounds and create an environment of shared prosperity and peace in this sub-continent…”
“Sir, I am happy to inform the honourable members of the House that I have decided to invite President Musharraf to come to India to watch the cricket match between our two teams. It is my earnest desire that the people in our neighbouring countries and their leaders should feel free to visit us whenever they wish to do so. Be it to watch a cricket match; be it to do some shopping; or be it to meet friends and families — India is proud to be an open society and an open economy. I do hope that President Musharraf and his family will enjoy their visit to our country.”
The House cheered him. Officials who heard him speak, finally drafted an invitation letter. Mr Musharraf came, watched the match Pakistan won at Ferozeshah Kotla grounds, was charmed by his favourite Bollywood star Rani Mukherjee and held a purposeful meeting that opened a new chapter in the bilateral relationship.
Much has happened since in both countries. The past two years have seen ups and downs and moments of frustration as well as shared optimism, as in Thimpu last April when the two prime ministers met on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit.
Dr Singh has once again stepped forward to bat and has invited President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Reza Gilani to join him at Mohali for the India-Pakistan semi-finals in the World Cup series. The initiative has been widely welcomed. This need not be a ‘summit’ masquerading as a visit.
To quote Dr Singh, India’s neighbours and their leaders “should feel free to visit whenever they wish to do so. Be it to watch a cricket match; be it to do some shopping; or be it to meet friends and families...”
Each time they meet there need be no joint statement, no one-upmanship, no point scoring. Meeting and talking, regularly, even about serious differences, is good in itself. Hopefully, this will be followed by a visit to Pakistan by Dr Singh. After seven years in office, it is time he visited his friends in the village of his birth.