Moving towards normalisation

Courtesy:- Dr Rashid Ahmad Khan

The prime ministers of Pakistan and India have found a common chemistry to work together for peace and to hail each other as messengers of peace and cooperation between their countries

Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma’s Pakistan visit may not have gone entirely as expected. Its outcome, however, provides a clear indication that Islamabad and New Delhi are firmly set to move forward on the road to normalisation of their relations by enhancing their bilateral trade. The failure of Pakistan to hand over the complete negative list of items to the Indian side was a bit disappointing for those who had hoped the visit would finally clear the way for open trade between the two countries. But the signing of three agreements on customs cooperation, mutual recognition and redress of grievances relating to non-tariff barriers will boost the confidence of the Pakistani and Indian business communities to engage each other in mutually beneficial trade and commercial relations. As a sign of their strong resolve to enhance the level of their trade and economic cooperation, Pakistan and India are also seriously considering the opening of branches of their central banks in each other’s countries and a meeting of officials from both sides is scheduled to take place in Mumbai in March 2012 to discuss its modalities.

Trade and economic cooperation is one of the eight baskets of subjects for discussion between Pakistan and India under the ongoing structured talks, better known as the composite dialogue process initiated in 2004. The process had completed four rounds of talks in May 2008 but was suspended because of the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks. However, in 2010 the process was resumed thanks to an understanding reached between Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and his Indian counterpart Dr Manmohan Singh during their meeting in Thimphu, characterised as the ‘Thimphu Spirit’. The resumed process is marked not only by an incremental progress on some CBMs, like liberalisation of the visa regime, trans-LoC trade and humanitarian affairs, the two countries also exchanged high level visits by their top officials to take the peace process further on the road to progress. The foreign secretaries of Pakistan and India held talks in Islamabad on June 23, 2011, during which the two sides discussed matters related to peace and security, including CBMs that existed between them. These talks were followed by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s visit to India in the last week of July. The visit was seen as the beginning of a new era of bilateral cooperation between the two countries and a reflection of the desire by their leaders to make the peace process uninterrupted and an uninterruptable exercise.

Apart from the exchange of high profile visits and a meeting between Prime Minister Gilani and Prime Minister Singh in the Maldives on the occasion of the 17th SAARC Summit in November last year, a couple of goodwill gestures from the Indian side, such as a surprise appearance of Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna at a reception hosted by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister at a local hotel in New York on October 21 during the UN General Assembly Session (the Pakistani mission had arranged this reception to lobby for a seat in the UNSC), the Indian vote in support of the Pakistani bid for a non-permanent seat in the UNSC, Indian withdrawal of its objection to the European Union (EU) waiver on the free import of 75 items, mostly textiles, from Pakistan to help it overcome the losses of the devastating 2010 floods and the Indian Supreme Court’s order to release imprisoned Pakistanis from Indian jails, also made important contributions towards improving the atmosphere between Pakistan and India. Much more important is the fact that the prime ministers of Pakistan and India have found a common chemistry to work together for peace and to hail each other as messengers of peace and cooperation between their countries. “I have always regarded Prime Minister Gilani as a man of peace,” declared the Indian prime minister after meeting his Pakistani counterpart in the Maldives and added, “Every time we have met over the past three years, my belief has further strengthened.” Prime Minister Gilani reciprocated these compliments in similar words by praising the Indian prime minister as a man with a genuine desire for peace in the South Asian region.

On November 2, 2011, Pakistan’s federal cabinet a approved the proposal for granting Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India in response to a longstanding Indian demand to reciprocate the similar Indian concession granted to Pakistan in 1996 in accordance with the rules and practices of WTO membership. This decision was made following a very fruitful visit to India by Pakistan’s Commerce Minister Makhdoom Amin Fahim in October. Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma’s visit to Pakistan is a follow-up development after the historic decision by Pakistan to start the process of granting MFN status to India.

Since the announcement of the decision to grant MFN status to India, Pakistan has steadfastly pursued the goal by holding a series of bilateral talks with the Indian authorities to resolve differences. The meetings between the Pakistani and the Indian officials during Mr Sharma’s visit have proved helpful in covering the ground for a mutually agreed framework for enhanced trade between the two sides.

It should be noted that the government of Pakistan has remained undeterred in going ahead with the pursuit of this policy goal despite a strong and sustained campaign by extremist religious elements grouped in the Difa-i-Pakistan Council (Defence of Pakistan Council) to thwart it by mobilising people against it. For this purpose, the DPC has held a series of public rallies in Lahore, Islamabad, Multan and Karachi during the last two months. Before that the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), one of the moving spirits behind the resurgent DPC, organised similar rallies in different places in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The JI and DPC are also trying to block the possible lifting of restrictions on NATO supplies through Pakistani territory, which have been suspended since November when the NATO forces killed Pakistani soldiers in Salala. The organisers of these rallies have also included opposition to the opening of Pakistan-India trade and granting of MFN status to India in their agenda. But the government has remained unmoved and is well on the way to normalise relations with India through expanding people-to-people contacts and the enhancement of bilateral trade. It shows that the religious extremist elements opposed to normalisation of Pakistan-India relations are gradually losing their clout to influence foreign policy choices by the Pakistani state.


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