Abba Eban, Israel’s iconic foreign minister in the 1960s, had once famously said of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that he “never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.If he were alive today, Eban would have said the same thing about us Indians and Pakistanis—and with ample justification.Imran Khan, Pakistan’s just-installed prime minister, is an iconoclast by most accounts. His admirers would cite umpteen instances of him defying convention. For the outside world, his inauguration ceremony as PM was meant to show that he stood for simplicity, not ostentation. Celebrities were conspicuously absent at the ceremony.
But he didn’t defy an old South Asian tradition: You do especially remember your friends and neighbours on such occasions and invite them. So, Imran invited his old cricket friends from India to his inaugural. He was selective, sending invites only to pals from his cricket days. Bollywood icon Aamir Khan, as much a heart-throb to Pakistanis as to Indians, was keen to go but couldn’t make Imran’s guest list. Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Navjot Singh Sidhu, his old cricket friends, did.
For reasons best known to them, Gavaskar and Dev didn’t go. Hindsight says they were apprehensive of the fallout from honouring the invitation. Sidhu was more intrepid and bit the bullet. The brouhaha in India over his decision would force any pundit to conclude that Gavaskar and Dev’s caution was fully warranted; their pragmatism shielded them from the media glare that Sidhu received.
But why all this fuss over Sidhu? What was so outrageous about his decision to honour the invite from an old friend? Did he commit an act of treason against his country to deserve a hot-headed communal leader putting a half-million rupee bounty on his head? Where did he go wrong to become an instant ‘bad boy’ to some sections of the Indian news media that blasted and pilloried him for his ‘perfidy’?
Sidhu was welcomed as an honoured guest—which he was to his Pakistani hosts—and given the star billing by the Pakistani media, which kept him in the limelight. Except for his sleeping hours, he was on camera, in Islamabad and later in Lahore, virtually all the time.But, lo and behold, his on-camera visibility became his indictment in the eyes of his detractors back home.
Why did Sidhu sit next to the president of what Pakistan calls ‘Azad [Independent] Kashmir’? The affable ‘President,’ Masood Khan, is a gentlemen’s gentleman. This scribe can vouch for him; he was a junior colleague at the Pakistan Embassy in Beijing in the early 1980s. Sidhu was a VVIP in the protocol’s pecking order at the ceremony and had to be seated where other VVIPs were. His only interaction with ‘President’ Masood Khan was exchanging polite smiles and a handshake. What was so wrong in trading pleasantries with an ‘enemy’?
Sidhu did interact warmly, on camera, with the chief of Pakistan Army, General Qamar Bajwa. But it was the General’s call. He walked up to Sidhu, embraced him and told him he wanted peace with India, the cricketer-turned-politician said in an interview to an Indian TV channel. Imran himself hailed Sidhu as an ‘ambassador of peace.’
In his small talk, Bajwa told Sidhu of plans to open the border at Kartarpur for Sikh pilgrims to Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday bash in Pakistan.General Bajwa is known for shooting straight. Besides, there was a natural chemistry between the two. As Sidhu later told the TV channel, Bajwas are ‘jats’ from Haryana as much as the Sidhus. They bonded instantly.
That’s all there was to the much-ballyhooed Sidhu-Bajwa ‘camaraderie,’ used against the unsuspecting Sikh to land him in the dock for a crime he didn’t commit. There was nothing hidden about the ‘encounter by chance.’ Every second of it is on camera.What’s obviously lost on Sidhu’s Indian nemeses is the reason Imran invited only his old cricket pals from India to his inaugural while shunning celebrities.Imran is, to friend and foe alike, straight as an arrow. He may be a novice to the world of diplomacy but has a clear vision of what he’d like to do to move Pakistan’s moribund relations with India from their current deadlock.
Traditional politicians and jaded bureaucrats have failed to end the logjam between the two countries. They have nothing new to offer by way of melting the frost. Imran would rather try his own tack.
A cricketer’s tack is his popularity with the people who flock to a cricket field to watch the game. Cricket is a second religion to Indians and Pakistanis. Cricketers are legends, and are almost worshipped as deities by some. So, why not use deities as assets, tools to break the logjam?
There’s an accretion of decades of misperceptions and misunderstandings between the two countries and governments. A quick thaw or breakthrough would be asking for the moon. A softening period—a soothing of nerves—would be a precursor to end the deadlock. Cricket diplomacy has a much better chance of success than traditional diplomacy. There’s more room to it.Imran took the leap and Sidhu responded. Let’s not queer the pitch for them.