Cricket diplomacy: PM Narendra Modi opens new innings with Pakistan

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | February 14, 2015 3:26 am

cricket World Cup, world cup, india cricket, cricket, SAARC, SAARC Yatra, india pakistan ties, india pak ties, Narendra Modi, Pakistan, nawaz sharif, india news, indian express Besides Sharif, he had phone conversations- the calls lasted 5 to 7 minutes each- with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani.

Nearly six months after India cancelled Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan over its envoy’s meeting with Hurriyat leaders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called up counterpart Nawaz Sharif Friday and said Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar will visit Pakistan as part of the SAARC Yatra.

Modi spoke to Sharif as part of his “cricket diplomacy”, conveying his best wishes to four SAARC leaders whose countries’ cricket teams are playing in the World Cup starting Saturday. India and Pakistan meet on Sunday.

Besides Sharif, he had  phone conversations — the calls lasted 5 to 7 minutes each — with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani.

During his conversation with Sharif, Modi said that S Jaishankar, who took charge as Foreign Secretary a fortnight ago, will be embarking on a tour of all SAARC countries, including Pakistan, over the next few months. This “will not be one long visit covering all seven countries”  but will be decided on the basis of availability of the Foreign Secretary’s counterparts and other logistical factors, sources said.

Jaishankar is likely to undertake the visits after a fortnight, and will complete his tour in the next few months, sources said. Foreign Secretaries usually visit SAARC countries as their first stop, but this time the tour is going to be a more structured affair.

This development comes a day after Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit met Jaishankar on Thursday. Officials called it a “courtesy call” and said it was a “cordial” meeting where both discussed the status of Indo-Pak ties.

Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said Jaishankar will go to Pakistan and other SAARC countries to carry forward the discussions on Modi’s proposals pertaining to SAARC — among them, the SAARC satellite, medical visas, business traveller card, vaccines —- and also “bilateral agenda”.

“Sure, we have a bilateral agenda with all SAARC countries and we will pursue that bilateral agenda too within the constraints of short visit to each of these countries… Every leader and diplomat uses every opportunity to push the bilateral agenda,” he said, adding, “Obviously, no one misuses an opportunity available.”

In Islamabad, the Prime Minister’s office said in a statement that Modi made a phone call to Sharif Friday morning and informed that the Indian Foreign Secretary would visit Pakistan. “After greetings and pleasantries, Prime Minister Modi informed the Prime Minister that India’s new Foreign Secretary will soon visit all SAARC counties and would also like to visit Pakistan,” the statement said. “The Prime Minister, recalling his meeting with the Prime Minister of India on 27th May, 2014 welcomed the visit of Indian Foreign Secretary to Pakistan to discuss all issues of common interest.”

This move comes six months after New Delhi cancelled talks with Pakistan. Last August, then Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was to travel to Islamabad but the talks were called off after New Delhi objected to the Pakistan High Commissioner’s meeting with the Hurriyat.
The MEA spokesperson maintained that the Foreign Secretary’s visit is an exercise in continuity to carry on the PM’s vision of SAARC. “Cricket is the metaphor for connectivity in SAARC,” Akbaruddin said.

During his phone conversation, Modi is learnt to have recalled how Sharif had played with Imran Khan — then captain of the Pakistan cricket team — in a warm-up match in Lahore. Sharif is said to have laughed and said, “Kaash, woh din laut aaye (I wish those days could come back).” Imran and Sharif are political opponents in Pakistan, with Khan’s party staging protests against the Sharif government on a range of issues.

During his conversation with Sirisena, Modi was said to have told him that Sri Lankan cricketer Lasith Malinga is very popular in Mumbai as he played for the Mumbai Indians cricket team in the Indian Premier League. Similarly, with Hasina, he recalled how Shakib Al Hasan, leading Bangladesh cricketer, is popular in Kolkata where he played for the Kolkata Knight Riders.

Modi announced his phone call to his counterparts Friday morning on Twitter. He also announced the SAARC Yatra. “Spoke to President Ashraf Ghani, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Sirisena. Conveyed my best wishes for the Cricket World Cup,” Modi tweeted.

Noting that five SAARC nations are playing and are excited about the World Cup, Modi said, “am sure WC will celebrate sportsman spirit and will be a treat for sports lovers. Cricket connects people in our region and promotes goodwill. Hope players from SAARC region play with passion and bring laurels to the region,” he said.

The Prime Minister also tweeted, “Would be sending our new Foreign Secretary on a SAARC Yatra soon to further strengthen our ties.”
The engagement with SAARC is expected to get a fillip with two Presidential visits expected to take place this month. While Sirisena is coming to India next week, Ashraf Ghani is likely to visit by February-end. Modi is also expected to visit Sri Lanka next month.

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