India on Friday renewed its cricket diplomacy engagements with Pakistan after a six-year gap, inviting Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to watch the high-voltage semi-final clash between the two countries at Mohali on March 30.
Foreign Office spokesperson Tehmina Janjua confirmed receiving two separate invitation letters — one apiece for the president and the premier — from India.
Janjua said it was premature to comment on which of the two leaders would fly to India to watch the game, as a final decision was still awaited.
However, sources say that Gilani is likely to join his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh at Mohali stadium.
“I propose to be at Mohali to watch the World Cup semi-final match between India and Pakistan to be held on March 30. There is huge excitement over the match and we are all looking forward to a great game of cricket that will be a victory for sport. It gives me great pleasure to invite you to visit Mohali and join me and the millions of fans from our two countries to watch the match,” Singh said in his letters to Zardari and Gilani.
Singh also said that his wife Gursharan Kaur would be present in the stadium.
Singh was attending the Business Standard newspaper awards at Delhi’s Maurya Sheraton in the company of an array of Indian businessmen, when the news of his invitation broke.
Even before the presenter could finish his sentence, the hall, full to the brim with India’s best and brightest, erupted into applause which lasted several minutes. This was as ringing an endorsement as the government could have hoped for, for its cricket diplomacy. After becoming the CEO of the Indian government, this will be Singh’s first outing to watch live cricket in a stadium.
Present at the gathering was Home Minister P Chidambaram. The announcement came as a bit of a surprise even for him. When asked about the additional preparations that would be required at Mohali for the World Cup semifinal, Chidambaram smiled wryly: “We are fully prepared. At the most, there will be a bit more frisking.”
Analysts see the invitation as “a smart diplomatic initiative through cricket” undertaken after the two countries resumed the dialogue process stalled in November 2008 when the Indian financial capital Mumbai was hit by terrorist attacks.
The interior secretaries of the two countries will be holding talks on March 28 -29 in New Delhi on security issues while their commerce secretaries will be meeting next month in Islamabad before the two sides hold foreign secretary level talks.
This is not the first time cricket has taken a centre-stage in Indo-Pak diplomacy. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee overruled the apprehensions of some of his senior cabinet colleagues and decided to send team India in 2003 for a series in Pakistan. Before the team left for Lahore, Vajpayee had invited them for tea where he famously advised them: “Dil bhi jeeto!”
In the past Sonia Gandhi has received invitations from Pakistan to watch cricket matches. Although she herself has not visited Pakistan, she did send her children, Rahul and Priyanka, to watch cricket games there.
The last time India and Pakistan faced each other in a major tournament was in the first T20 World Cup and India became the world champion.
In 2005 President Pervez Musharraf had visited New Delhi to watch India and Pakistan play cricket for the first time after the failed Agra summit.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 26th, 2011.
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