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Cricket Diplomacy: PM Restarts Saarc Initiative, Calls Sharif; FS Gets Ready to Visit Neighbours

Published: 13th February 2015 11:32 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th February 2015 02:13 PM   |  A+A-

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NEW DELHI: Six months after India cancelled foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan, the new incumbent will now begin his parikrama of south asia, which includes Islamabad – as Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to Nawaz Sharif to convey “good luck” for the Cricket World Cup.

“Spoke to (Afghanistan) President @ashrafghani, (Bangladesh) PM Sheikh Hasina, (Pakistan) PM Nawaz Sharif & (Sri Lanka) President Sirisena. Conveyed my best wishes for the Cricket World Cup,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Friday morning.            

The PM’s “cricket diplomacy”, described so by the MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin, will be his first pan-SAARC initiative since he invited all leaders of the region for his swearing-in ceremony in May.               

“5 SAARC Nations are playing & are excited about the World Cup.Am sure WC will celebrate sportsman spirit & will be a treat for sports lovers,” tweeted Modi.

He noted that Cricket “connects people in our region & promotes goodwill”. “Hope players from SAARC region play with passion & bring laurels to the region,” he added.

“Would be sending our new Foreign Secretary on a SAARC Yatra soon to further strengthen our ties,” Modi added, significantly. While he did not give the order of the destination, Pakistan will certainly figure in the list.

Incidentally, the PM’s phone call to Sharif went out just a few hours after US president Barack Obama gave a pat on the back to Pakistan for combating terror in a one-on-one telephone conversation.  In the same call, Sharif apparently again asked Obama to put pressure on India to resume dialogue with Pakistan and also complained that India does not qualify to be UN security council permanent member.

Interestingly, while Obama praised Sharif for supporting war against terror, the US House of Representatives foreign affairs committee sent a letter asking White House to cut foreign aid and sanction Pakistani officials for, expressing skepticism that Pakistan had changed its policy and targeting all groups. It spefically cited the rally held by Jamaat-ud-Dawaa in Lahore on February 25.

The cricket world cup opening ceremony took place on February 12, and first match for a team from the subcontinent will take place on Saturday – between Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Also for the first time, Afghanistan is making history by debuting in the cricket world cup.

 However, the most anticipated match will take place on Sunday, between India and Pakistan, when the two teams fight it out in Adelaide.

Usually, when a new foreign secretary takes over, Bhutan is the traditional first foreign destination. However, Jaishankar accompanied external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj on her visit to China, just two days after taking over office on January 29.

Earlier last Sunday in his address to Indian ambassadors, President Pranab Mukherjee had said that the initiative to invite Saarc leaders in May “must be followed through to its logical conclusion through incisive diplomacy even as we remain firm in protecting our security and putting in place impregnable security mechanisms”. He had described the invitation as a demonstration of India’s  “dynamism and bold leadership”

Mukherjee had said that India’s “initiatives in the neighbourhood must be followed up with concrete steps to consolidate and make permanent the advances we make in our relations.”

The feel-good factor from the swearing-in ceremony dissipated within a few months amidst intense border firing at the line of control and international border.  Then in august, foreign secretary Sujatha Singh cancelled talks with her counterpart at th last minute, after the Pakistan high commissioner held talks with Kashmiri separatist leaders.

Since then, relations have been rather acrimonius, with India berating Pakistan for not taking action against UN-designated terror groups and allowing 26/11 mastermind Hafez Saeed to hold public rallies.

The last time that Modi and Sharif met was at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu, where after avoiding eye-contact for two days, they shook hands to thunderous applause at the end of the event in November.

India had said that it was ready to hold talks on whole range of issues including Kashmir, but within the Shimla agreement and Lahore declaration. This is of course not acceptable to Pakistan. In recent weeks, Pakistani senior officials had been saying that it was upto India to take the initiative to again restart talks.

On Thursday, the Pakistan high commissioner Abdul Basit had called on S Jaishankar on a “courtesy call”.

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