New Delhi, Sept. 8: Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has company as he waits for a signal of readiness or reluctance from India — New Delhi is keeping his nation’s domestic T20 cricket champions on tenterhooks too.
India is holding back on a decision on allowing Pakistan’s Faisalabad Wolves to play in this month’s Champions League T20 series, trying to gauge the nation’s mood on the neighbour as close to the tournament as is possible, after recent border tensions.
New Delhi, which is publicly not committing to a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sharif scheduled for later this month, wants to retain the opportunity to pull the plug on the Wolves’ participation if necessary politically in an election year, senior officials here told The Telegraph.
“It’s about keeping our options open,” an official said, confirming that the Wolves, led by Pakistan Test and ODI captain Misbah-ul Haq, have applied for visas for the tournament, that begins on September 17 when they play the Otago Volts from New Zealand in Mohali. “The cricket team’s fate, like that of the meeting between the Prime Ministers, depends on the position we take on the signal we want to send Pakistan at this point.”
Singh and Sharif are currently scheduled to meet on the morning of September 29 in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. But India is reluctant to commit to the meeting after alleged Pakistan troops killed five Indian soldiers along the Line of Control they share on August 5, triggering a series of tit-for-tat allegations and resolutions by both nations against the other.
The cliffhanger over the cricket team’s fortunes, officials accepted, could prove a key bellwether of India-Pakistan relations in the near future, including the meeting between the two Prime Ministers. The home ministry, which needs to give a green signal before visas can be issued to the Wolves, is waiting for a clear direction from Singh’s office.
That direction will be based on an assessment of ties with Pakistan that Singh will take after considering domestic political compulsions and Islamabad’s responsiveness to New Delhi’s concerns over the border violence and terror groups across the border that continue to target India.
“I realise there’s not much time left for the UN summit,” external affairs minister Salman Khurshid said, speaking with select reporters on August 31. “But the Prime Minister will take a decision (on the meeting with Sharif) after weighing all factors.”
This isn’t the first occasion that cricketing ties between the two neighbours have been hostage to the state of diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan at the time.
Pakistan visited India for a Test series after over a decade in early 1999 when then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reached out to Sharif, who was Pakistan’s Prime Minister at the time, months before the Kargil War and the subsequent coup by General Pervez Musharraf.
In 2011, Prime Minister Singh and his then counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani sat next to each other in the VIP lounge of Mohali’s stadium when the two nations played in the World Cup semi-finals.
But Pakistan cricketers have been ignored by all teams in the Indian Premier League after the November 26, 2008 terror attacks that India blames on Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and on groups based out of that country.
Singh is keen on meeting Sharif in New York, and on resuming talks with Pakistan, officials said. But the Opposition BJP wants him to skip any dialogue with the Pakistan Prime Minister, and some members of his own party, the Congress, are worried about the political impact of images of the two leaders together.
“Whatever the Prime Minister decides on his New York meeting, will play out in our overall approach to Pakistan,” another official said. “And that includes the cricket team’s fate.”