2016 Hodge-Podge: Cricket, Pakistan, Russia, Syria and Israel 

One enters 2016 with some happy thoughts. Some anxieties too.

Of New Delhi’s umpteen dailies, three had photographs of spin bowlers on the shoulders of their page one on the last day of the year. There were two photographs of R. Ashwin and one of Moeen Ali who helped England beat South Africa at Durban. Two days ago, Nathan Lyon, the Australian off spinner, was declared man-of-match against the West Indies at Melbourne.

The return of the spinner in 2016 promises to relieve the monotony of pace attack as the only armour in the bowling arsenal. The spinner, with loops of varying heights, a turn both ways and a doubly deceptive capacity to go straight, offers a more intellectual engagement. It causes the batsman to use his feet, reflect. What reflection when Mitchell Starc hurls thunderbolts at 160 km? Lightening reflex, yes.

I can never forget the hush that descended on Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi when Bishan Singh Bedi was handed the ball as first change. What magic was he going to weave around the batsman? The performance of Ashwin and Jadeja in the recent seasons could well promise the return of an era of spinners. Yasir Shah, Sunil Narine, Imran Tahir, Rangana Herath and others mentioned above signal the return of the spinner in international cricket.

The other happy development is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise stopover at Lahore on his way back from Moscow and Kabul. There is a cricketing question attached to this initiative. A series of meetings are scheduled but there is hesitation to play what would be the world’s most watched Test series.

After the bitterness between the countries in the recent past, a full blown cricket tour by Pakistan to India may strain emotions. But if there is any sincerity in Modi’s Lahore visit, an abridged Test series, even in a neutral venue, could be an initiative that would help soften the atmosphere.

The Lahore initiative would be credible only if there is evidence of a changing mindset among the ruling elite. The air has to be slowly cleared of Indo-Pakistan and Hindu-Muslim tension. A cricket series with the right political backing can go a long way in clearing the air. But if communal polarization is the electoral requirement for, say, the 2016 elections in Assam, West Bengal and Kerala, improved relations with Pakistan cannot be seriously on the BJP’s agenda.

Arrival of carved rocks for construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, or BJP MP Hukum Singh and MLA Suresh Rana holding Mahapanchayats in Shamli and Muzaffarnagar where largescale anti-Muslim pogrom took place in 2013, confirm one’s worst fears. There is no intention to keep aggressive Hindutva in check.

If this, indeed, is to be the policy, it will be totally incompatible with any effort at peace with Pakistan.

I have a theory of the triangle for sub-continental peace. India-Pakistan, New Delhi-Srinagar and Hindu-Muslim as one triangular complex of issues. It is elementary geometry that a contradiction or expansion of any one of the lines or angles will impact on the other two. Indo-Pakistan peace will immediately bring down Hindu-Muslim temperatures and cause Srinagar to wonder if some sort of a settlement is round the corner.

Since such a settlement is nowhere in sight, any meaningful progress on the Indo-Pakistan track is simply not possible. There is a further complication. If Hindu consolidation is the strategic aim of Hindutva, of which the BJP is a part, minorities will be required as the “other”. This again flies in the face of Indo-Pakistan normalization as a BJP priority. There are impediments to peace on the Pakistani side too.

This is not to argue that peace is impossible. Indeed, South Block is feeling extremely buoyant after the Prime Minister’s Moscow visit where “Make in India” received a boost in nuclear and defence fields. In fact, two nuclear plants for Bangladesh will be a joint Indo-Russian project. New Delhi with friends not just in one bloc but in many places feels that much more secure to make appropriate advances towards Pakistan.

Also, India takes over as President of BRICS in February. This will entail two Putin visits in 2016 – one to attend the BRICS summit and another overdue bilateral visit. Chinese President Xi Jinping will also be here for BRICS. Absence of normalization with Pakistan will stand in the way of India taking advantage of gas pipelines from Central Asia or the Chinese Silk Route initiative.

Modi will be in Islamabad for the 2016 SAARC summit. Between SAARC and BRICS so much can be achieved with a Pakistan which is inclined to be in step.

It turns out that almost the first important Arab leader to visit New Delhi in the New Year (in fact in January) will be Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, carrying a message from President Bashar al Assad.

Modi, fresh from his conversations with Putin, will of course note the similarity of views between Moscow and Damascus. He will find these views not out of sync with those being spelt out by Secretary of State John Kerry either. Muallem’s inputs will be crucial because in January begins the process of identifying Syrian opposition groups who will sit at the table along with the official Syrian delegation to focus on government formation in Syria.

A huge difference of opinion has erupted on who is a terrorist. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordanian lists of terrorists in Syria differ. Of course India has an abiding interest in the outcome but does New Delhi have a role? Muallem may have a suggestion.

Soon Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj will have occasion to compare Muallem’s version with what is furnished to her in Tel Aviv which she visits soon. She may discern in Israel that the Jewish state’s favourite candidate in the US elections is Hillary Clinton and not Donald Trump despite his brazen overtures to Bibi Netanyahu.

It is all happening in the New Year.

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