A sporting chance for political rivals

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 April, 2004, 12:00am

Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton but it would be facile, and also dangerous, to suggest that India won anything more than a Test match last week on the pitch in the Pakistani town of Multan. But it was precisely because such high hopes were invested in the match that it reached out beyond politics to sport's noblest aspiration: the event's importance lay not in the result but in playing the game.

The tone was set at the earlier one-day internationals in Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi. The huge crowds would have hopelessly failed the Tebbit Test devised by British Conservative politician Lord Tebbit to detect a man's loyalty from the team he cheers. For though the spectators were Pakistani, they roared their approval of Virender Sehwag's spectacular batting, and leg spinner Anil Kumble's wizardry with the ball, Indians though they are.

'This is a strong symbol for the peace process,' said a Pakistani peddling mineral water, referring to the planned talks between the two nuclear-armed nations who have fought three wars. A small boy, also Pakistani, held up a crudely painted poster on which he had daubed the flags of the two countries and the legend: 'We Wish Friendship Forever' above his signature, 'Abbas M.' Equally memorable were the two kites soaring over the Lahore field. One bore Pakistan's star and crescent on a field of Islamic green, the other India's saffron, white and green tricolour.

All this emphasised that, like the American table tennis team that toured China (responding to China's own pioneering ping-pong diplomacy) on the eve of Richard Nixon's dramatic visit to Beijing in 1971, sport is often about politics. Yet, cricket alone would have been justification enough for the exuberance, because all South Asians have inherited a passion for the game from their erstwhile British rulers. Indians and Pakistanis feel deprived, therefore, that neither country has been visited by the other's cricket team in 15 years.

Shrewdly recognising the power of bonding at a popular level, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee overruled objections by hawkish colleagues to send the cricketers as goodwill ambassadors before the hard negotiations on normalising ties begins.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf responded magnificently to the overture and, to the dismay of some cricketing purists, presented a rival attraction in the VIP box at Rawalpindi and Lahore. He was not the only draw however. A galaxy of high-profile visitors from India - including Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, son and daughter of slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and themselves political hopefuls in India's coming parliamentary election - also reinforced the message that the games were about more than cricket.

Mr Vajpayee's aim was to create the right atmosphere for a planned series of talks on bus, rail and ferry links between the two distant neighbours, problems related to smuggling and drugs, nuclear confidence-building measures, terrorism and, of course, Kashmir. If all goes well, he and General Musharraf will hold a summit conference in August. Reports of people in the crowd grumbling at having been denied their favourite sport all these years must have been music to Mr Vajpayee's ears.

It will make no difference if Pakistan comes back strongly in the rest of the Tests, which started yesterday. In fact, the victorious Indian players expect them to do just that. A Pakistani win would save face and even the balance. But in spite of an American baseball coach's verdict that winning is not the most important thing in sport - it is the only thing - gamesmanship, like diplomacy, can be a win-win endeavour regardless of who wins.

However, General Musharraf threw a dampener on the bonhomie last Wednesday by threatening to end the peace process if no progress is made in solving the Kashmir dispute. Calling terrorists there freedom-fighters, he also reiterated that Pakistan would continue giving them moral, political and diplomatic support. 'If you think I am here to sell Kashmir, you are talking to the wrong man,' he said.

Perhaps General Musharraf was really addressing domestic Islamic fundamentalists who want him out or dead. But his warning was a reminder that optimism must be tempered with realism. Sport is effective only up to a point. Leaving aside the Bodyline series that nearly ruptured Anglo-Australian ties, the rapturous welcome American wrestlers received in Iran in 1998 had absolutely no impact on frozen relations.

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author