Since independence, India’s foreign policy has focused heavily on neighboring Pakistan. It will be even more so for the new government in India.
Since the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008, there has been little progress to restore normal relations between India and Pakistan. The handshake at the Indian Prime Minister Modi’s inauguration gave way to rabblerousing of Pakistan waging proxy war through terrorism. That was followed by calling off Secretary-level talks by India due to the Pakistani Ambassador engaging with Kashmiri separatist leaders in New Delhi despite a warning not to.
After a month of turmoil in Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif regained political parties in Parliament. Soon after, according to media reports, he gifted a box of preferred mangoes to his Indian counterpart and other Foreign Ministry officials as a token gesture. Diplomatic circles are abuzz that this is a sign of Mr. Sharif wanting to meet Mr. Modi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. If that happens, Mr. Modi may respond by indulging in ‘cricket diplomacy’.
Countries often use sporting events to boost diplomacy, advance social interaction and gain political favour. The Olympics which started off as a sports carnival was first used by Adolf Hitler to promote Nazi Party ideals and racial supremacy after Berlin won a bidding war over Barcelona to become the host city in 1936. But a brilliant performance by one of America’s greatest athlete, Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals helped smash the German propaganda of “Aryan Supremacy”.
The “Miracle on Ice” hockey game in which United States amateur athletes beat a seasoned professional Soviet Union hockey team in the 1980 winter Olympics remains one of the top sporting moments of the 20th century. The Soviets were devastated after the loss while the Americans felt that they had won the Cold War.
Sports was used an instrument to isolate South Africa and end apartheid. The United States also engaged in ‘ping pong diplomacy’ in 1972, paving the way for President Richard Nixon to visit communist China.
Even in a 21st century globalized world, sporting events continue to be a tool of diplomacy, and countries are increasingly using it to display their soft power. An out-of-the box solution for the new Indian government to improve relations with Pakistan is to engage in cricket diplomacy.
The Indian Premier League (IPL) has not only caught the imagination of cricket fans in India but has also from cricket playing nations across the globe. Played between eight clubs in various Indian Cities, talent is drawn from most cricket playing nations. But following the Mumbai terrorist attacks, Pakistani players were banned from taking part in IPL.
If India were to lift the ban on Pakistan players in IPL, it could help normalize relations between the two countries. India would also need to urge its Cricket Board to expand the T20 league to include clubs from three Pakistan cities such as Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and one from Jammu and Kashmir to play in the City of Srinagar.
After 67 years of independence, India and Pakistan are still at odds on many issues. The new Indian government must adopt a proactive approach and initiate confidence building measures, advance trade relations, improve connectivity and enhance social exchanges with Pakistan.
Cricket as a strategic diplomatic tool is indeed capable of transcending the ethnic and social divide while dispelling historical stereotypes and age-old prejudices between the two countries. Expanding IPL to include cities from Pakistan and Kashmir could lay a strong foundation for a peaceful relationship between the two acrimonious and bitter neighbors.