One of the most abiding images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first bilateral visit to the Maldives on June 8 was him gifting President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih a cricket bat, containing the autographs of all the members of the Indian national team playing in the ongoing World Cup in England.
It is not often that one sees such a gesture from one head of government to another. It was as high on optics as a powerful statement of India’s soft power diplomacy. Modi could not have chosen a better time for this given that the frenzy surrounding the World Cup is at its peak. Cricket diplomacy came in for praise from none other than cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar, who also expressed the hope that the Maldives would be seen on the cricket map soon.
What helped India unleash cricket diplomacy with the Maldives is the fact that the Indian Ocean island nation’s president and vice president are great cricket enthusiasts. India is considering a request from Solih, who watched a match in the popular Indian Premier League competition in Bengaluru this year, to build a cricket stadium and train the national team of the Maldives to bring them up to the requisite international standards. The stadium is expected to be built near Male under the line of credit that India will give and the Indian government is working with the Indian cricket board (BCCI). India has already supplied cricket and training kits to Maldivian cricketers. A team from the BCCI had visited the Maldives in May in connection with the training of Maldivian cricketers and finalising coaching programmes for them. Also, the Maldives would like India to undertake training programmes in that country. It remains to be seen if the BCCI would take on additional responsibilities in this regard.
Cricket remains a “good area in which we could build public relations and people-to-people relations and therefore, I think, one of the important discussions that took place was that we would assist the government of Maldives in building a proper cricket stadium, an international level cricket stadium in the Maldives, in the vicinity of Male,” Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay K Gokhale told reporters in the run-up to Modi’s visit. Given the popularity of cricket in South Asia, “we see this as an important people-to-people relationship-building exercise in the same way that we did for Afghanistan, if you recall, a few years ago,” he said.
India helped Afghanistan to qualify for Test-playing status and is still helping the country. The BCCI has provided the Afghan national team a stadium in Greater Noida, near Delhi, for training after shifting from their previous venue in Sharjah in 2015. India had also helped Afghanistan gain access to a stadium in Dehradun where Afghanistan hosted Bangladesh in a series of Twenty20 matches in the week prior to Afghanistan’s first-ever Test match against India in Bengaluru in 2018. The full measure of the diplomatic importance of that Test could be understood from the fact that Prime Minister Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had issued separate statements to mark the landmark occasion which were read out to the spectators at the stadium and the live TV audience.
The BCCI has also promised to assist junior teams from Afghanistan to play in India and provide assistance for the improvement of coaching, umpiring, and other technical support. Also, the Indian government provided one million dollars for the construction of a cricket stadium and related facilities in Kandahar. These are commendable initiatives to improve Afghanistan’s domestic capabilities for cricket and to popularise the game in the country.
There is no doubt that India is using cricket diplomacy to help promote strategic security objectives in Afghanistan and the Maldives. Terrorism emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan threatens South Asia as a whole, and India’s use of soft power of Bollywood and cricket has led the Afghan people, who are fiercely independent, to perceive New Delhi as a benign foreign power. India has invested a lot of political and economic resources to rebuild war-torn Afghanistan and has remained stuck to its course despite suffering occasional setbacks from terror attacks in that country.
In the Maldives, Modi’s cricket diplomacy was an icing on the cake as India appears to have gotten back its influence following the change of guard after the electoral defeat of President Abdulla Yameen’s government whose five-year rule saw the country’s relations with India suffer and move closer to China. But with a friendly government in place in the Maldives since December last year, India was quick to offer millions of dollars in soft loans for high-impact social welfare projects in Afghanistan in a range of sectors. India also liberalised visa norms for Maldivians in January this year. New Delhi, it seems, is keen to make up for the lost time during the Yameen years.
Sports has often been used as a diplomatic tool to try and improve ties between traditionally rival countries. Ping-pong (table tennis) diplomacy between the United States and China, once Cold War rivals, in 1970 was considered to be a historic event in international relations. On the other hand, sports has also been used to make a statement of protest through the boycott of sporting events including the Olympics. The same narrative has prevailed in the Indian sub-continent when it comes to cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan. India-Pakistan cricket diplomacy has had a mixed bag of outcomes. At times, it was used to break the ice in bilateral ties but the thaw was short-lived. The wars of 1965 and 1971, and attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists in India have led to a long hiatus in sporting relations between the two countries, which continues today.
Soft-power diplomacy, however, has its limitations and could at best be an add-on component when bilateral relations are robust and sustained in order to generate more goodwill and bonhomie among the people of two countries.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.
Follow The Daily Star Opinion on Facebook for the latest opinions, commentaries and analyses by experts and professionals.
To contribute your article or letter to The Daily Star Opinion, see our guidelines for submission.