|By Muhammad Tahir
Pakistan's official announcement on Sunday that Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani will visit India at the invitation of his Indian counterpart Dr. Manmohan Singh to watch a cricket match between the traditional rivals on March 30 has revived the "cricket diplomacy" between the two countries.
Indian Prime Minister Singh had invited President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani to watch the semi-final match in the on-going World Cup Cricket tournament between the two countries in the Indian city of Mohali.
Presidential Spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said that it was also decided in a Saturday night meeting between President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani that in response to the Indian PM's invitation the Prime Minister of Pakistan will visit India to witness the semi final of the cricket match between the two cricket teams.
The spokesman said the president had welcomed the Indian Prime Minister's invitation to President Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to witness the match.
Pakistan and India have used the cricket diplomacy on a few occasions at a time when the troops of both countries had been in the eyeball-to-eyeball position. People in the two countries anxiously await the upcoming match between the two countries and both teams are under tremendous pressure to win the do-and-die match.
Former Pakistani military President Zia-ul-Haq had introduced cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan. He had invited the Indian Test team to Pakistan in 1978.
Nine years later Zia had taken his cricket-for-peace campaign to a new height when he visited India and watched a cricket match between the two nations' teams in Jaipur along with the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
General Zia had visited India to watch India-Pakistan cricket match at a time when Indian and Pakistani troops massed in a tense border confrontation. General Zia, accompanied by a delegation of 68 government officials, sportsmen and family members, had formal bilateral talks with Gandhi in New Delhi after watching the match.
In 2005, the then Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf had tried to revive cricket as a tool for diplomacy between the two neighbors. He had visited India to watch a Test match between India and Pakistan in Delhi and later also had formal parleys with Manmohan Singh.
Indian PM's invitation to Zardari and Gilani for the cricket match came just ahead of the Interior Secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan, scheduled for Monday and Tuesday. A Pakistani official said that the talks, the first since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, will discuss terrorism, humanitarian issues, removal of visa restrictions and cooperation to fight drug trafficking.
Political leaders, analysts, media and traders have welcomed the revival of cricket diplomacy and expressed the hope that this will ease tension and lay ground for future engagement between the two countries which have fought three wars since their 1947 independence.
The revival of cricket diplomacy will also provide an opportunity to Gilani and Singh to hold talks. Both prime ministers last met in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, on the sidelines of a South Asian summit. It was the Thimphu summit that paved the way for the resumption of the bilateral official talks known as "Composite Dialogue".
Some quarters are of the view that no breakthrough could be expected in the Gilani's visit, but it is considered to be a major confidence-building measure at the highest level between the two countries. Foreign affairs experts believe that the Gilani-Singh summit will also have a positive impact on the two-day Interior Secretary-level talks which will kick off on Monday.
This interaction will also be a sigh of relief for countries in the region, who always think that Pakistan and India rivalry has made the entire region hostage. It will also send a positive message across the world, especially to allies of Pakistan and India as they are always worried over the tense relations between the two nuclear rivals.