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Natwar plays along

Lahore, Feb. 17: Natwar Singh is a lucky man. Not many in his shoes have had the opportunity to push for a breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations.

His announcement of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus has changed the way people are viewing India. People want to travel by road to India, see cricket matches and go shopping. The external affairs minister saw how cricket was moving people and used it to push for better ties.

'If we combine our efforts on issues, our goals would be well within our grasp. I have also pointed out (to Pakistani friends) that a combined India-Pakistan cricket team would be unbeatable,' he said.

Earlier in the day in Islamabad, Singh had breakfast with an old friend, Pakistan Cricket Board chief and veteran diplomat, Shaharyar Khan.

He suggested three things: cricket and politics ought not to be mixed; the decision to play in Ahmedabad should be left to the cricket boards; and that it would not be a good idea to call off the tour.

By evening, the dispute had all but been settled ' a one-dayer in Ahmedabad and a Test in Calcutta. The lunch at Punjab governor Khalid Maqbool's residence in Lahore was also laced with cricket. Maqbool wanted to go to Mohali to watch the Test. Singh assured him Delhi would facilitate his visit.

Ordinary Pakistanis seem keen on driving down to Mohali. That may not be possible but Punjab chief minister Pervez Elahi was told that India would set up a special visa camp in Lahore to help cricket lovers. At the Indian high commission in Islamabad, two additional windows are to be opened. Some 8,000 cricket fans are expected to travel.

Elahi told Singh that people in Lahore were excited at the prospect of a bus service to Amritsar. They had burst crackers on hearing the news, he informed Singh, wanting to know how soon the service would start.

Sensing the mood, Singh told journalists that the time had come to shift from the caution and conservatism of the respective governments of India and Pakistan to a relationship led by the people.

'There are natural affinities between our people, cultural commonalities and family relationships. After all, why is it that an Indian and a Pakistani strike natural friendship when outside the subcontinent' This is what we need to build upon,' he said.

Singh hoped that soon groups of Pakistani tourists would start visiting India. He also announced that India was already implementing a special visa regime for Pakistani students to study in India ' 'particularly in the IT sector'.

But before the techies, cricket fans will swamp India.

 

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