LAHORE – In 2005, during a visit to Islamabad, I met Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and told him of a conversation I had had with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. The Indian leader, whom I have known for years, had said that he wanted better relations with Pakistan as one his legacies.
Musharraf’s response was interesting. He said he had the same aspiration, but that it would need effort from both sides to move things along. “I have invited Manmohan a half-dozen times to visit Pakistan. I have also offered to take him to his village near Chakwal, a few miles south of Islamabad, where he was born. But he continues to demur,” he told me.
I repeated the conversation to Singh, who explained that in a democracy such as India, a great deal of work needs to be done with the members of the coalition and the senior bureaucracy before the prime minister can travel to Pakistan. “Musharraf is a military leader; he needs only to pack his bags and head this way.”
Musharraf did head that way a few months later, when he forced an invitation out of Singh to watch a cricket match between the two sides in New Delhi in 2005. It took the Indian government some time to formulate an answer to Musharraf’s request for a visit. When it came, it carried Singh’s characteristic warmth.
At the end of a speech in the Lok Sabah, the lower house of India’s parliament, Singh issued his formal invitation. “How nice it would be to 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,” he said. “I am happy to inform the honorable members of this 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 neighborly countries and their leaders should feel free to visit each other whenever they wish to do so. Be it to watch a cricket match; be it do some shopping; be it to meet friends and families – India is proud to be an open society, an open economy. I do hope that President Musharraf and his family will enjoy their visit to our country.”
The prime minister’s statement was received with cheers, not the jeers that some of his aides had feared. Musharraf went to Ferozeshah Kotala cricket ground in Delhi and saw his team win the match. He and Singh also found time during the game to talk about bilateral relations, and agreed to launch what came to be called the “composite dialogue,” covering eight contentious issues that had soured ties for so long. Three years later, a Pakistan-based terrorist group killed more than 160 people in Mumbai, India’s financial capital – and, with them, the diplomatic opening initiated by cricket.
Once again, however, cricket has revived dialogue between the sub-continent’s two nuclear-armed rivals. This time, the initiative came from Singh, who invited his Pakistani counterpart, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, to visit Mohali, near New Delhi, to watch the two countries play the semi-final in the Cricket World Cup. The match was played on March 30, with Pakistan losing narrowly.
On the political side, however, the two countries were not evenly matched. Of the troika that currently governs Pakistan – the president, the prime minister, and the chief of staff of the army – it is the prime minister who carries the least amount of authority. It was Gilani who sat next to Singh to watch the game; but, ultimately, process, rather than protocol, will determine how bilateral relations move forward.
After the match, Singh said that “India and Pakistan should be working together to find cooperative solutions and need permanent reconciliation to live together in dignity and honor. We should put our ancient animosities behind us to attend to the problems our two nations face.” Gilani expressed the same sentiment: “We need to focus on dealing with our common enemies – inflation, poverty, hunger, disease, and unemployment – for the prosperity of the two countries.”
There have been indications of a gradual thaw. Senior officials from the ministries of commerce, defense, and foreign affairs will meet in the next two months followed by a meeting of the foreign ministers. Gilani invited Singh to visit Pakistan, an invitation that “will be considered carefully,” according to Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao. And she spoke of a new environment: “Today, it is the Mohali spirit that pervades our relationship. This was an extremely positive and encouraging spirit that has been generated as a result of today’s meetings.”
We have been here before, of course, only to see prospects for improved India-Pakistan relations snuffed out. There are no guarantees that this time will be different. But, for both countries, hope dies last.