Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's
decision to invite his counterpart in Pakistan, Yousuf Raza Gilani,
to watch the India-Pakistan cricket match in the World Cup semifinal
in Chandigarh may prove to be a successful initiative for more than
For one, it cannot but boost the prime minister's personal standing
both in the country and in his own Congress party. Battered and
bruised as he (like his party) has been in the last few months
because of various scams, the possibility of a marginal and
momentary improvement in relations between the two hostile
neighbours will provide welcome relief.
For another, the diversion of attention from the scams, even for a
temporary period, will enable the prime minister to turn to matters
of governance, where the problem of "deficit" has been noted by,
among others, Home Minister P. Chidambaram.
But, most importantly, what the decision showed was that Manmohan
Singh had decided to assert himself unlike in the recent past when
his prolonged silences and apparent acquiescence in the suspected
wrong doings of ministers and party men had damaged his credibility.
The most notable of these submissive attitudes, which hurt him
considerably, was to give the former telecom minister, Andimuthu
Raja, a long rope despite mounting evidence of his acts of omission
and commission. Taken together with the prime minister's decision to
appoint the controversial bureaucrat, P.J. Thomas, as central
vigilance commissioner, for which he subsequently accepted all the
blame, Manmohan Singh's position had hit an all-time low.
The belief was that he could be bullied by belligerent allies like
the Left on economic reforms, as during 2004 and 2008, and by the
DMK on the telecom scam till the minister's arrest earlier this
But the decision to invite Gilani - which was taken apparently
without consulting the external affairs ministry - showed that he
was recovering his poise. Not surprisingly, it was on the issue of
improving ties with Pakistan that he decided to be his own man
instead of being extra sensitive to the predilections of others,
whether they are in the Congress or outside.
As has been known for some time, one of the issues (apart from the
nuclear deal) on which Manmohan Singh has strong views is
India-Pakistan relations. His desire for better ties was also
displayed by his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when he invited
Pervez Musharraf, then president of Pakistan, for a meeting in Agra
in 2001, and also two years earlier when he took the initiative to
visit Lahore to inaugurate a bus service between the two countries.
It is apparently the wish of all Indian prime ministers to leave
their imprint on history by solving the seemingly insoluble
India-Pakistan "problem". As in Vajpayee's case, where his own
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Hindutva brigade were lukewarm,
if not palpably displeased, about his initiative, Manmohan Singh,
too, has had to contend with a section in the Congress which is not
too enthusiastic about reaching out to Pakistan at a time when it is
regarded as the epicentre of terrorism by a vast majority of
Since this perception is bound to be used by the BJP to show the
Congress as being "soft" on terror, the Congress has been wary about
Manmohan Singh's friendly moves in this respect. In fact, he had to
virtually retract much of the joint statement, which he and Gilani
had issued after a meeting in Sharm-el-Sheikh in 2009 because it
contained a line about suspected Indian involvement in the unrest in
the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan.
Yet, the fact that despite the resistance which Manmohan Singh faces
about his goodwill gestures, he still decided to go ahead with his
invitation to Gilani showed that on matters close to his heart, he
is willing to take a certain amount of risk. He did the same thing
on the nuclear deal, which also faced hurdles from anti-American
elements in the Congress and from a section of the scientific
establishment, not to mention the Left, which withdrew its support
to the Manmohan Singh government on the issue in 2008.
It was, however, a quirk of fate which enabled the prime minister to
reach out to Pakistan this time. If India did not win against
Australia in the quarterfinals, there would not have been any
Manmohan Singh-Gilani interaction. If India did not win against
Pakistan, the mood in India would have been too glum for the prime
minister and the Congress, and the hyperactive Indian media, to
display any enthusiasm about a forward movement in India-Pakistan
ties. But the present upbeat mood has created conditions for at
least more diplomatic contacts, which have virtually been frozen
since the Mumbai massacres of November 2008.
The presence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul,
at the Mohali cricket ground near Chandigarh, where the match was
played, was yet another favourable sign, for it showed that the
party and the prime minister were on the same page. It may be
recalled that it was Rahul's support which enabled Manmohan Singh to
push through the nuclear deal since the doubting Thomases in the
Congress were silenced.
Similarly, if the Congress supports Manmohan Singh's overtures to
Pakistan, and America leans on Pakistan, and especially its army, to
do more to cleanse the country of terrorists, there will be a
possibility of genuine rapprochement.
is a political analyst. He can be reached at