Those who think former cricketers can’t have a successful second career in politics need to revisit their conviction. Two ace cricketers-cum-politicians from across the Great Divide between India and Pakistan—Pakistan’s newly-minted PM Imran Khan and India’s Navjot Singh Sidhu—may prove the Cassandras wrong with their latest exploits.
Imran had taken the initial leap of imagination by inviting three of his Indian cricket buddies to his inauguration as PM last August. Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar—two icons of India’s cricket pantheon—excused themselves. They might have thought of discretion being the better part of valour. However, Navjot Sidhu accepted the invite and graced the ceremony with his presence.
The next act of bravado came from Pakistan’s military chief, Gen. Qamar Bajwa. Greeting Sidhu, a fellow Punjabi, at the ceremony, Bajwa offered to open the Kartarpur border with India for Sikh pilgrims wishing to visit the shrine of their patron-saint, Baba Guru Nanak, in Pakistan’s Narowal district. Sidhu couldn’t have expected a more gracious and generous act of hospitality from his Pakistani hosts.
Kartarpur, in Pakistan, has Gurdwara Darbar Sahib where Guru Nanak spent his last years. It’s the holiest of holy places associated with the great saint. But the border-crossing project at Kartarpur, first mooted in 1988, had been lying dormant ever since because of bad blood between the governments of India and Pakistan. Politics, petty at times, frustrated and trumped the yearnings in the hearts of Sikh pilgrims to pay their respects to their saint at his last abode.
It took Imran Khan three months to honour his military chief’s offer to Sidhu: he was busy in visiting those friends of Pakistan—Saudi Arabia and China, in quick succession—who could, and did, help him dig Pakistan out of its economic morass. In the end, however, he didn’t disappoint his buddy Sidhu.
On November 24, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi announced that Imran will be breaking the ground at Kartarpur on November 28, for a four-km- long corridor to connect with Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur on the Indian side. The icing on the cake for Sikh pilgrims is that they will be able to enter Pakistan visa-free. All this in preparation for the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.
Imran’s Kartarpur gambit is part of the initiative he had announced immediately after his electoral victory last July. Extending an olive branch to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, Imran had offered to take two steps forward if India took one. That spirit of reconciliation and peace continues to pervade his strive to mend long torn fences with India. Kartarpur corridor tucks neatly into Imran’s well-meaning drive.
However, the Indian government still seems reluctant to respond fully and willingly to Imran’s front-foot forward thrust, something he has learnt from his cricket experience. India, instead, seems to prefer staying on the back foot on relations with Pakistan.
A symptom of Indian government’s half-hearted response is Sushma Swaraj declining her Pakistani counterpart Qureshi’s invitation to attend the groundbreaking ceremony on November 28, citing “prior commitments”.Sushma had also spurned a luncheon meeting with Qureshi in New York in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, despite the previous commitment for it. Her spokesman had justified the ‘no-show’ by her by accusing Pakistan of “unclean intentions”.
It is obvious that with their eyes on next year’s general elections in India, the Indian ruling party stalwarts would like to present themselves to their electors as ‘tough’ guys, vis-a-vis Pakistan giving no quarters to their arch adversary. But Sushma was, nonetheless, magnanimous in informing Qureshi that India’s Minister for Food Processing Industries, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, and Minister of State for Housing and Urban Affairs, Hardeep Singh Puri, will be attending the November 28 ceremony.
Intriguingly, the CM of Punjab, Capt. Amarinder Singh, has not only declined to attend but has also served a ‘warning’ to Pakistan to “not vitiate the atmosphere.” He may have his own reasons for standing tough on Pakistan. Earlier, too, he had decried Sidhu’s attendance at Imran’s inaugural by calling it “hugplomacy”.
Interestingly, the Pakistani initiative to allow visa-free access to Sikh pilgrims into its territory seems to have galvanised the Indian government into its own act of one-upmanship. Perhaps not to be seen as lacking in warmth, the Indian government has pre-empted Pakistan by being the first to lay the foundation stone of the Kartarpur corridor, two days ahead of the Pakistani D-Day. The Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu graced the ceremony in Gurdaspur on November 26.
It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, really matter who lays the first stone or takes the first step as long as it breaks the ice between two estranged neighbours. They should have been doing it long time ago. It’s a long overdue mending of torn fences. Navjot Sidhu has captured and summed up the Kartarpur spirit succinctly by saying it “can make pilgrims of us all, venturing out on a journey that breaks the barriers of history.” Pray it be so.