Published on March 19, 2016, on NDTV.com
If India beats Pakistan tonight, March 19, at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, it would have avenged itself for the Pathankot attacks.
If Pakistan beats India tonight, it would have survived to fight another day – to tell the world that notwithstanding its decades-old affliction with terrorism et al, it is still in the game to becoming a normal country, and sports is one sure-shot way of getting there.
The hoarse cries and cheers of 66,349 people – that’s how many Eden Gardens can hold – and the scores of thousands of others on TV and radio and the internet will sublimate their purest emotions at the India-Pakistan T20 match. Jaw-jaw instead of war-war. Much better this way.
Dharamsala’s loss has been Kolkata’s gain, of course. But Dharamsala – a tiny Himalayan town, better known for the peace and love emitted by the Dalai Lama’s presence than its cricketing stadium built by BJP leader Anurag Thakur – should never have been given a T20 face-off between the two cricketing giants in the first place.
There’s much too much friction in the air when these two sub-continental nuclear powers meet. Dharamsala would never have been able to handle the stress.
Kolkata, on the other hand, is a past master at handling the whimsies of powerful men and women. It was at the heart of Empire for more than a century, until the Empire shifted to Delhi in 1911. More recently, it has learnt to deal with the caprices of Trinamool leader and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Parts of the city are still painted an Asian Paints cobalt blue, and if your car is waiting at a traffic light, you will hear Rabindra Sangeet emanating from microphones installed nearby.
Eden Gardens nearby is like a caged tiger, tonight, waiting to roar. The last time India played here against Pakistan on January 3, 2013, it lost by 85 runs, so the Indian team surely has a point to score. On the other hand, the last five encounters between the two countries tells you how evenly the nail-biting has been spread: soon after that Eden Gardens encounter, on January 6, 2013 at the Feroz Shah Kotla grounds in Delhi, India avenged its defeat by 10 runs. Then in June 2013, in Birmingham, India won again, by 8 wickets. At the Sher-i-Bangla stadium on March 2, 2014, Pakistan won by one wicket, while in February 2015, at the Adelaide Oval, India scored over Pakistan with 75 runs to spare.
Even the most languid of cricketing enthusiasts – like me – have to admit that there’s something about an India-Pakistan match. The neon glare from the stadium lights is a little bit more blue. The grass seems greener. For those of us who aren’t avid gamers, the silly points or the batting order or even whether Anushka Sharma is in the stands or not – is she? – is hardly worth a shrug. What is truly exciting is that despite the wars (two) and the limited conflicts (Kargil) and the several terrorist attacks (Mumbai, Pathankot), Indians recognize, somewhere, that the Pakistanis are perhaps as much victim as they are, and therefore, similarly besieged, in all the worldly matters – terrorism, unemployment, as well as the Brahminical order.
Certainly, Kolkata is special. If not for the sting against several Trinamool leaders conducted by Narada News, Mamata Banerjee would have surely taken full credit for hosting the game tonight, and happily used it as a sub-text of her leadership qualities in the coming elections – remember, West Bengal has a Muslim population of 25 per cent, of its 90 million people. Win or lose, Mamata Di will definitely take the kudos for pulling off a match between two countries who are ostensibly enemies but actually, quite happy to compare notes and become friends.
In reality, the cricket match is a test case for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Pakistan policy. Only someone like him could have weathered the political criticism that came from the Pathankot attacks and still carried on the dialogue with Pakistan. If he was in the Opposition and the ruling party had refused to call off talks – just like he’s done – Modi and the BJP would have surely made political mince-meat of the ruling party.
But since he’s in the driving seat, Modi is using his massive majority in the Lok Sabha to silence the critics. Actually, the Opposition agrees with the policy to carry on talks with Pakistan, so Modi is safe on that score. If there is any real criticism, it will come from the RSS, and for the moment, the RSS is quiet.
The Pathankot attacks have also taught Modi a brutal lesson in realpolitik: Trust and Verify, as Ronald Reagan so famously said of his Cold War enemies, the former Soviet Union. Modi is using the same policy with the Pakistanis. Which means that he will slowly allow a relaxation of people-to-people measures, such as sporting links, but he will crack down on terror-related matters.
If, indeed, Modi follows up his own policy, the T20 cricket series should be followed by bilateral cricket matches, which the Pakistanis offered to play in the UAE, acknowledging that their own country was far too unsafe for foreigners.
The next natural steps would be to relax the visa regimes, allowing tourists to travel, and to open up trade between the two countries. As the roads open, not only across Wagah and Attari in Punjab, but also across Munabao and Khokhrapar in Rajasthan as well as the Line of Control in Kashmir, Indians and Pakistanis will slowly get reacquainted with each other.
Remember it is 70 years next year since the Partition of the sub-continent killed nearly a million people and uprooted another 10 million. Most people of that generation have passed, but many have also left behind their memories, both friendly and prejudicial. If India and Pakistan have to learn to put the past behind us, now is the time.
Remember, too, that this is the 30th anniversary of SAARC, an anachronism that is a mouthful – the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation – and the gathering of South Asian leaders will take place in Islamabad in November. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must represent India; it is a SAARC rule that if one leader can’t make it, the summit is postponed.
Modi has a few months left to walk the fractious India-Pakistan relationship back to a path of boring normalcy. Hosting a T20 cricket match is the perfect opportunity to break the ice that has been freezing over since the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Since then, each time both sides come together to gingerly reach out a hand – Modi’s Lahore visit was followed by the Pathankot attack, for example – someone doesn’t like it.
Only someone like Modi, who has the confidence of the RSS, can pull off peace with Pakistan – even if it’s a cold peace, to start with. That’s why it doesn’t really matter who wins at Eden Gardens tonight – especially if the frenzy over cricket paves the way for other, equally interesting people-to-people initiatives. Prime Ministers Modi and Nawaz Sharif both know that as they get ready to meet at the nuclear security summit hosted by US President Barack Obama in New York later this month.