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Vajpayee catches, cricket wins PMO prevails over Advani

New Delhi, Feb. 14: Cricket has won against politics with the government today declaring that India’s tour of Pakistan would go ahead.

The Prime Minister’s Office prevailed over the home ministry, headed by L.K. Advani, which wanted the tour to be put off till after the Lok Sabha elections, expected any time between mid-April and early May. The tour is scheduled to start in March.

Although security reasons were cited in a media campaign pressing for postponement, the real fear was that any “untoward incident” during the series would spoil the “feel-good” factor before the polls.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee allowed the issue to be played out in the public sphere before stepping in. The decision to go ahead with the cricket series, which surprised many, came after a meeting at his 7 Race Course Road residence this morning.

The meeting was attended by deputy Prime Minister Advani, external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha, finance minister Jaswant Singh and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra.

“After taking into consideration all aspects, it was decided that the two countries should go ahead with their cricket matches as proposed,” Sinha told reporters after the meeting.

The detailed schedule has not been worked out yet. This will be done only after the three-member recce team of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) returns from Islamabad on Monday. Asked if a decision was taken on the tour itinerary at the meeting, Sinha said it was for the BCCI to fix the schedule in consultation with its counterpart in Pakistan.

Sinha’s ministry was in favour of the tour because it feared a postponement would hit the peace process. It would have vitiated the atmosphere ahead of the official-level dialogue between the two countries, beginning on Monday. Calling off the tour would have also taken away the current diplomatic advantage that Delhi has over Islamabad, the foreign office held.

Restoration of cricketing ties was one of the confidence-building measures the neighbours had agreed on. Going back on any confidence-building measure would have invited questions about India’s sincerity in improving relations, it believed.

Media reports of a possible postponement had evoked a sharp reaction from Islamabad. Pakistan Cricket Board chief Shaharyar Khan today said the decision to go ahead with the tour would have a “positive impact” but added that he had never thought the series was in doubt. “Only the media speculated that the tour was in doubt. But we were optimistic as we had not heard anything officially from the Indian government or the BCCI.”

BCCI chief Jagmohan Dalmiya thanked the government for a cricket-friendly decision. He added that security considerations were kept in mind while making the decision.

Although sources insisted that both Vajpayee and Advani agreed that cricketing ties between the neighbours should be restored, today’s decision is bound to be seen as a loss of face for the home ministry.

Advani’s ministry had floated the view that the tour be postponed on security grounds, a theme the BJP and the RSS had picked up. The deputy Prime Minister had not commented on the issue but his junior ministers, I.D. Swamy and Swami Chinmayanand, appeared on television speaking in different voices. Swamy insisted the tour would take place but Chinmayanand said it would not. He cited Pakistan’s involvement in nuclear proliferation as the reason for not going.

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