Originally Published 2012-04-04 00:00:00 Published on Apr 04, 2012
Though domestic politics will continue to pose challenges to Dr Manmohan Singh's image, his firm commitment to Indo-Pak engagement has put both countries on course for at least a manageable relationship, if not a cordial one, based on mutual interests rather than vicissitudes and emotions.
Indo-Pak: Time right for serious business
IT WAS a year ago that the Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani accepted Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s invitation to witness the 2011 Cricket world cup semi-final between India and Pakistan at Mohali on March 30, 2011. While only one team can emerge victor in a cricket match - in this case it was India - it would not be incorrect to say that both countries have gained from this display of statesmanship.

Engagement between the two countries has sustained and eventually lead to significant breakthroughs in the economic domain. Serious bilateral engagement began through commerce secretary-level talks at Islamabad in April 2011. This was followed by some other important developments. In July 2011, Pakistani foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar visited New Delhi. In September 2011, Pakistan commerce minister’s Makhdoom Fahim visited India. In February 2012, Indian commerce minister Anand Sharma visited Pakistan with a high-powered delegation.

The outcomes of all these meetings have been promising. Some of the tangible ones include Pakistan’s decision to switch to a negative list regime for trade with India, under which the import of only 1,209 Indian products will be barred. As a consequence, Indian traders can increase their exports to Pakistan more than four-fold. It might be mentioned here that this approach was adopted since many in Pakistan are not comfortable with the usage of the term ’Most-Favoured Nation’ and the civilian government was keen not to ruffle many feathers.

In another path-breaking development, India was allowed to send wheat to Afghanistan through Karachi. More than 1 lakh tonne of the 2.5 lakh tonne India pledged in Kabul has moved over the last few months from Kandla and subsequently by rail and road to Torkham, the transit point on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Pakistan also wants to buy power from India. During a recent meeting on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Seoul, Gilani once again broached the subject of India supplying power to Pakistan with the Indian PM. This move has received the support of PML-N supremo and former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

What are the factors which have paved the way for sustained and meaningful engagement, when even the mention of dialogue after 26/11 evoked strong responses in India?

First, Dr Singh stuck his neck out and ensured the engagement did not suffer even though there was immense pressure to dismiss it. It might be mentioned that the Indian PM’s decision to invite his Pakistani counterpart for the Mohali semi-final had been criticised by many.

Second, the focus has clearly been on business and trade, something for which there is an appetite on both sides. The Indian prime minister probably realised the perils of taking up emotive issues from the Sharm-el-Sheikh fiasco where a mention of controversial issues resulted in suspension of engagement. Even deliberations on trade have been carried out in a meticulous manner and to the Pakistan government’s credit it has obliged. Thorny issues such as the usage of ’Most Favoured Nation’ for India have also been deftly tackled, with Pakistan reducing the negative list.

Third, both prime ministers have trodden a very cautious path, refraining from making any specific policy declarations during their meetings. Declarations at such meetings can prove to be counterproductive, as has been the case in the past. The Indian prime minister’s cautious approach is clearly evident from the fact that he has refrained so far from visiting Pakistan until something substantial emerges.

Fourth, engagement between India and Pakistan has been dehyphenated from Islamabad’s relationship with other countries, including the US and China.

The government has been embroiled in corruption scams, the Congress has had to buckle under ally pressure on domestic and foreign policy and off course the Congress performance in the recent assembly elections was abysmal. But in the realm of foreign policy, his persistence with Pakistan has definitely yielded dividends with the civilian government obliging on numerous economic issues. The Pakistani PM too deserves a special word of praise for making bold statements and providing the required cushion to his colleagues for furthering the engagement.

While domestic politics will continue to pose challenges to Dr Singh’s image, his firm commitment to Indo-Pak engagement has put both countries on course for at least a manageable relationship, if not a cordial one, based on mutual interests rather than vicissitudes and emotions.

(Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.