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Caught between war and World Cup

In New Delhi, there is little public sentiment that suggests a war may be in the offing.’s Patralekha Chatterjee reports.
/ Source: contributor

The leaders of India and Pakistan pepper the media with bellicose statements. A million soldiers are on a hair-trigger alert along the nuclear rivals’ 1,800-mile border. But at the Aloha Bar in the Indian capital of New Delhi, businessman Alok Sinha said he has found a better edge-of-the-seat draw. “The best way to forget about war is to watch soccer,” he said.

On the streets of New Delhi, there is little to suggest a war may be in the offing.

The Meridien Hotel’s Aloha Bar has all but banned news, instead offering drinks specials and daily quizzes to customers dropping by during the work day to watch soccer’s World Cup. There are no quiz questions about Kashmir, the disputed border region between India and Pakistan.

“If they are showing a soccer match, the news has to wait,” said sport enthusiast Sinha, 46. “I am not stocking up on anything. I do not think there will be a war. And if there is, there is nothing I can do about it. This is more real,” he said, gesturing toward a giant television screen.

In a recent poll in The Hindustan Times, New Delhi’s largest selling English language newspaper, more than half of respondents said they disapprove of the use of nuclear weapons in a full scale war between India and Pakistan.


Despite public nonchalance, there is a greater worry here about the economic impact resulting from the international panic. Tourism numbers are already down significantly.

The U.S. State Department has warned the over 60,000 American citizens living in India to leave the country, amid risk of conflict with neighboring Pakistan.

While the State Department has expressed concern that few Americans are heeding its advice, at the Priya shopping complex in Vasant Vihar, a popular neighborhood with western tourists and expatriates in New Delhi, there are fewer foreigners to be seen.

Rebecca, who did not want her last name used, was the only Western face at the Movenpick ice cream store the other day. The Oregon accessories designer, currently in India on a business trip, laughed when asked if she was scared about the crisis.

“Crisis? What crisis? Do I look scared?” she said, tucking into a large bowl of mango ice cream. Rebecca said she called the U.S. embassy for an update. “They told me to get back home. I took a train to Jaipur (a tourist destination in western India) instead. I will probably get out of Delhi pretty soon, but that is to escape the heat. Not the war.”


Many here believe that the clouds of war have been politically expedient for the Indian and Pakistani leadership. The India-Pakistan stalemate and the continuing international panic over a possible nuclear war in the region, analysts say, have provided the ruling regimes in both countries a political respite on their home turf.

Both Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf were facing domestic political upheaval before the war scare erupted. Musharraf, Washington’s trusted ally in the global war against terror, has lost much of the shine he acquired immediately after Sept. 11. His image has nose-dived following the referendum that renewed his dictatorship for another five years. The prospect of a war with India provided the beleaguered general an opportunity to display military machismo.

The Vajpayee government, too, was in no great shape. Locals and outsiders were outraged at the government’s inability and unwillingness to step in and put an end to a communally-motivated pogrom in Gujarat state, which has killed more than 1,000 people. The Indian media has strongly criticized Vajpayee’s BJP party for not removing Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister. Many blame Modi for shielding Hindu hard-liners, and for the continuing violence against Muslims.

Until the war scare upstaged it, Gujarat, the scene of savage anti-Muslim riots, was front page news and leading prime time TV broadcasts. But no longer.


InsertArt(1544917)As Dlip Cherian, a well-known Indian public affairs commentator pointed out in a recent column in The Asian Age newspaper, “Nobody is talking about that beast Narendra Modi anymore. In fact, suddenly, any reference to the genocide in Gujarat is considered an anti-national thing to do.”

Cherian points out that even Indian Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, who had been under fire for allegedly suspicious election-related funding activities, is no longer the target of vicious political attacks. The Indian opposition, only a few months ago lurching towards the Vajpayee government’s jugular, today appears restrained.

After several attacks by Islamic militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the Indian public cried out for revenge.

But as the weeks wear on, war hysteria seems to be ebbing — even as the Indian and Pakistani leaders speak in bellicose terms.

Most people in India in their calmer moments admit that they do not think a war is a solution to the country’s problems. In the Aloha Bar in New Delhi, soccer fan Sinha said India and Pakistan’s leaders could learn from World Cup teamwork.

“Watching the intense partnership between 11 players for one ball is so engrossing!” said Sinha. “All my tensions, whether it is about the war or work, evaporate.”’s Patralekha Chatterjee is based in New Delhi.