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Test matches are over, now the real test starts

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-04-17

When the Indian team bowled out Pakistan in Rawalpindi yesterday, more than just a cricket match ended with a historic victory for the visitors. Defeat for the home team notwithstanding, the celebrations all across India and Pakistan demonstrated that cricket--that most British of sports which the colonialists introduced to the Subcontinent more than a century ago--was capable of bringing together two societies that had long been antagonistic toward each other over geopolitical issues. It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that what may have ended yesterday was a longstanding mutual belief that, short of a modern-day diplomatic miracle, nothing could bring about a thaw in bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, two nations that were born 57 years ago from the same cultural womb.

In fact, cricket proved to be that very diplomatic miracle. During the course of three five-day test matches--which India won 2-1--and five one-day events--which India also won, 3-2--the sheer exuberance generated among the teeming millions of both nations was so extensive that only the most curmudgeonly dared recall that India and Pakistan had also fought three wars with each other since independence in 1947. Yesterday, as people sang and danced in the streets of both countries, it would have been unseemly to also recall that each country has accused the other of wanting to destabilize the other. And it would certainly have been unkind to point out that both nations have consistently suspected the other of nurturing terrorist activities against the other's sovereignty.

The completion of the cricket series yesterday--the first time that the two countries had played test cricket against each other in 14 years--did not, of course, wipe the political slate clean. There has been too much bad blood between India and Pakistan over issues such as control over the disputed territory of Kashmir, which India claims and Pakistan counter-claims. There has been too much blood shed, not only in the three wars--one of which resulted in the former East Pakistan being transformed into the independent state of Bangladesh--but also in scores of terrorists incidents on both sides of the border. There has been too much bitter rhetoric in international forums, where both countries have attempted to insult or outmaneuver each other in pursuit of global support for their respective policies. The political and even cultural rhetoric between India and Pakistan has been too vitriolic to be cancelled out by one cricket series, however popular with the masses.

Still, that series is virtually certain to strengthen the hands of the two men who pushed for it--President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of India. General Musharraf, who's under immense pressure from the United States to flush out Al Qaeda terrorists who've taken refuge in his country, has been known to want, if not fully healthy relations, at least a less volatile co-existence with India. The good will generated by the cricket series is likely to give him an opening to start a new dialogue with India in which the status of Kashmir may well figure as a key item on the agenda.

And Mr. Vajpayee is in the middle of a campaign to elect 543 members of lower house of the bicameral Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha. It will be the world's biggest exercise in democracy, involving more than 670 million voters in 28 states and seven federal territories where balloting will be held at 700,000 voting centres between April 20 and May 10. His ruling coalition of 22 parties will almost surely try to capitalize on the "feel-good" factor that's clearly abroad throughout the country as a result of the monumental cricket victory.

When the Indian cricket team returns home tomorrow (Saturday), its members will be given parades and prizes--and, of course, huge new contracts for commercial endorsements. It's a good bet that Prime Minister Vajpayee will also be out there, politically serenading the returning sports warriors. Some of the cricketers have already indicated that they will campaign in Mr Vajpayee's behalf. Photo-ops with cricketing heroes would not hurt the prime minister--but he needs to do more than pose smilingly. His predicted victory in the general election offers a timely opportunity to further extend a hand of friendship to Pakistan through sustained negotiations. The two countries not only need to resolve the long festering Kashmir issue but also develop better trade, tourism and transportation ties. They can also collaborate on anti-terrorist campaigns.

It may well be ungracious to say that the cricket euphoria will soon evaporate. But sports triumphs have a way of soon becoming yesterday's headlines. The more lasting legacy of the India-Pakistan cricket series would be if bilateral relations are fully normalized and the two mostly poor countries are able to devote more resources not to militarization but to their ever growing domestic needs for sustainable economic and social development.

Yesterday, in the middle of post-match parties, one cricketer, 30-year-old Sachin Tendulkar of India, said, "This cricket series should be dedicated to the poor people of both our countries, who deserve a better life." Wise words, coming from a sportsman. General Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee would do well to listen and act on them.

In cricket, one team generally wins while the other loses. In cricket diplomacy, everyone's a winner.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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