As the cricket-crazy subcontinent wait excitedly for the World Cup to start in Australia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked up the threads of his “SAARC initiative” with a twist of cricket diplomacy on Friday by calling up his counterparts of those nations in the grouping which are playing the tournament.
Sources tell The Hindu the phone call was preceded by a meeting between Pakistan High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar. Pakistan has maintained that India must take the first step to “initiate talks” since India had cancelled them.
According to Pakistani government sources, after the phone call by Mr. Modi proposing to send Mr. Jaishankar to Islamabad, Prime Minister Sharif said “Pakistan will respond positively, as engagement is in our mutual interest.”
Mr. Modi also spoke to SAARC leaders of other countries playing in the World Cup, including Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani to wish their teams for the tournament. Mr. Modi also told them that Mr. Jaishankar would visit there soon on what he called a “SAARC yatra”.
“Cricket is a metaphor for connectivity at the people-to-people level. Speaking to SAARC leaders is part of the Prime Minister’s multi-layered diplomacy,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.
However, it is clear that Mr. Modi's talks with Mr. Sharif have a significance beyond cricket-related bonhomie in the SAARC region. To begin with, Pakistan is the only one of the SAARC countries that India does not have a dialogue process with at present. While President Sirisena is arriving in Delhi this weekend, President Ghani is expected to visit in the second-half of March, while Mr. Modi, who visited Bhutan and Nepal in 2014, is expected to visit Sri Lanka next month. Maldivian Foreign Minister Dunya Mamoun will also be in Delhi soon, ahead of a proposal for Mr. Modi to go to Male. Meanwhile, a bilateral visit with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is expected once the government is able to clear the Land Boundary agreement in parliament.
While relations with Pakistan have been tense over the cancellation of talks, repeated ceasefire violations that led to the deaths of several soldiers, and Pakistan’s refusal to crackdown on the Jamaat ud Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed, sources said there has been a distinct thaw in the atmosphere in the past month.
Mr. Modi set it off when he made a telephone call to Mr. Sharif after the Peshawar school massacre and NSA Ajit Doval delivered a supportive message at the Pakistan high commission in New Delhi. The Hindu has learnt that in late December, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Delhi Abdul Basit also met with NSA Ajit Doval to discuss the possibility of resuming talks.
On Wednesday this week, the NDA government sent a Minister for the first time, Petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan to Islamabad, to attend a meeting on the Turkmenistan ‘TAPI’ gas pipeline that was chaired by PM Sharif, and he met with Mr. Sharif separately. Significantly, US President Barack Obama spoke to Mr. Sharif on Thursday to “discuss his India trip”, according to an official release. While it is unclear if the resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue was discussed during either of those conversations, they seem to have set the tone for PM Modi’s call on Friday.
The Prime Minister’s decision to make the phone calls and send the foreign secretary on a “SAARC yatra” is his third subcontinent-focussed foray, beginning with his invitation to all SAARC leaders to attend his swearing in ceremony in May 2014, and followed by his proposals at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November 2014 for greater regional integration.