When it comes to India and Pakistan, cricketing analogies are inescapable. More so when Pakistan's most successful cricketer, Imran Khan, is now prime minister.
In recent days, Khan seems to have bowled his famed reverse swing at us over the issue of the Kartarpur corridor and Indian diplomats seem to have misread the ball. The issue is fairly simple. The Gurudwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, roughly four kilometres from the international border, marks the spot where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, passed away over four centuries ago.
The gurudwara built on the spot is revered by Sikhs worldwide. It was Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who in 1999 during his historic bus trip to Lahore first mooted the idea of giving Indian pilgrims access to Kartarpur. His proposal received a cold response in Pakistan. However, last August, soon after Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu attended Imran Khan's swearing-in ceremony, Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa mentioned that they were opening Kartarpur to Indian pilgrims.
India seems to have made a series of missteps first by not judging the significance of this move and then not anticipating Pakistan's unilateral announcement in September of visa-free access for Indian pilgrims to Kartarpur ahead of Guru Nanak's 550th birth anniversary in November next year.
The government mistimed the groundbreaking ceremony of the corridor held on the Indian side on November 26, 2008, the 10th anniversary of the brutal 26/11 attacks.
Pakistan isn't exactly going great guns. Its economy is in tatters, the currency is tumbling and Imran Khan has been forced to ask Saudi Arabia, China and the IMF for bailouts.
It is also under the scanner of global money laundering watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for not doing enough to curb money laundering and terror financing. This is what makes its rapid moves on Kartarpur interesting, particularly since Khan, who completed 100 days as PM on November 25, seems to have the military backing him at every step.
India Today cover story, Outpacing India, for December 17, 2018.It is difficult for India to see Kartarpur in isolation from what is clearly a larger game plan by the Pakistani deep state to revive Khalistani terrorism and open a second front, after Kashmir, against India.
Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh has stated that the state police have neutralised 19 ISI armed and controlled terror modules, arrested 81 terrorists over the past year and recovered 71 weapons, many of them made in Pakistan. New Delhi has turned down all of Pakistan's peace overtures since Khan took over as PM in August. A meeting of foreign ministers, to be held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, was called off after India raised concerns on terror and an external affairs ministry spokesperson's coarse remark that the 'true face of the new PM of Pakistan has been revealed to the world'.
This is where India risks losing the perception battle globally as a country that has repeatedly spurned peace initiatives.
That's not a nice place to be in.
On the face of it, Pakistan has changed its game while India seems trapped in its 'terror and talks don't go hand in hand' rhetoric. No doubt, the upcoming Lok Sabha election, where the government wants to show it is pushing a strong line on Pakistan, has something to do with this stance. Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa, who visited Pakistan during the recent groundbreaking ceremony, feels it is as tough a country to manage today as it was on his last visit there, during Nawaz Sharif's premiership five years ago. "When it comes to foreign policy, however, Imran has got the right narrative and he seems to be outpacing us at the moment. How India responds to him in the days ahead is going to be critical." To use another cricketing analogy, Indian diplomacy seems to be playing a five-day Test match to Pakistan's T20.
India has to realise that there is a new captain in town with a new bag of tricks.
Imran famously said there are captains who play to win the game and those who play not to lose. He is obviously the former. Cleverly, he has even turned the slur that he is a stooge of the army into an advantage.
Since India has claimed that all peace initiatives of the past have been sabotaged by the army and that he is perceived to be on the same page as the army, why not deal with him is the message from Islamabad.
India needs to recognise the new reality across the border. It has to change its tactics and play the game with Imran.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, Outpacing India, for December 17, 2018)