Quietly forward

Published : Jun 20, 2008 00:00 IST

Pranab Mukherjees visit to Pakistan yielded several positives despite the overheated atmosphere.

in Islamabad

ENCOUNTERS between India and Pakistan, even of the peace process kind, have a touch of war about them. Each side comes to the table amid the deafening roar of expectations, accusations and counter-accusations. On either side, the media, an ever-expanding community of strategic thinkers, political parties and other assorted observers egg their respective team on to get the better of the other.

This time, the May 16 Jaipur blasts set the stage for the visit of External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to Islamabad, the first high-level contact between the two countries after the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led democratic government took office. At least 60 people died in the blast. Investigators pointed fingers eastward, at a Bangladesh-based group called Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Jaipur attack as an attempt to derail the India-Pakistan peace process. Coincidentally or not, the Line of Control (LoC) also suddenly erupted with incidents that seemed to threaten the five-year-old ceasefire.

Credit is due to both governments for holding a cool-headed round of talks despite the overheated atmosphere on the eve of the visit, which yielded several positives notwithstanding the complaint of the media in Pakistan that another meeting had ended without lack of progress on the core issue of Kashmir and on the other issues of Siachen and Sir Creek.

The purpose of Mukherjees two-day visit was to review with Pakistans new Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the fourth round of the composite dialogue process that took place in 2007. This was the main agenda of the visit. The other important purpose was to gauge the commitment of Pakistans new coalition government to the peace process.

Mukherjee met the whos who of the ruling alliance PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader Nawaz Sharif, and Awami National Party leader Asfandyar Wali Khan. He also met President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani.

Importantly for New Delhi, the new leadership in Pakistan unreservedly committed itself to the eight-subject dialogue mechanism through which the two countries have been engaged since 2004, when President Musharraf was the all-powerful authority.

The External Affairs Minister and the Pakistan Foreign Minister agreed on the usefulness of the mechanism and the fifth round of the process is to begin in July. They also agreed that the Sir Creek issue was close to resolution. The two sides also reinforced their commitment to the ceasefire on the LoC. In a joint statement, both sides came out strongly against terrorism, reaffirming the resolve not to let it derail the peace process.

Mukherjee declared immediately upon arrival that India was ready to approach the peace process in a spirit of cooperation, trust and pragmatism but underlined that this was predicated on an atmosphere free from terrorism, violence and the threat of it. Of late, India has been particularly concerned about the increase in the activities of the United Jihad Council, which held meetings in Muzaffarabd, the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK), and in Rawalpindi. A Jaish-e-Mohammed meeting in Bhawalpur in April also rattled New Delhi and increased concerns that hardline elements in the Pakistan Army were resurfacing and that the new government might not have the power to deal with extremist groups in the same way as the Musharraf regime did.

In the event, the Indian side appeared satisfied with the text of the joint statement in which both sides reiterated their commitment to fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and re-emphasised the need for effective steps for the complete elimination of this menace.

India and Pakistan agreed last year on a special forum to discuss issues relating to terrorism. The joint anti-terror mechanism was set up last March and it was to meet every quarter. But for unexplained reasons, only two meetings have taken place since then. The two sides have now decided to reactivate the mechanism and refrain from hostile propaganda.

While the two sides remain unable to agree on a new visa policy that has been on the drawing board since 2005, they did manage to take India and Pakistan a notch up in civilised conduct towards each others nationals by signing a long-pending agreement on consular access to prisoners (see separate report).

Perhaps the most important new development was a formalisation of the new governments approach to its economic relations with India. Pakistan has always tied betterment of economic ties to progress on the core issue of Kashmir, trading with India on the basis of a restricted positive list rather than the negative list that is the international norm.

The positive list determines what Pakistan can import from India, and hence is more restrictive than a negative list that puts down what should not be traded. Pakistan has also pointed many times to Indian non-tariff barriers that make trading with India difficult for Pakistani exporters.

For this reason, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) free trade agreement is not fully operational and Pakistan has yet to give India Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status. All this has meant that informal trade between India and Pakistan is three or four times the size of the official $2 billion bilateral trade, with Indian goods pouring in from Dubai and other third countries.

Zardari and the PPP have stated several times that improvement in economic and other relations cannot be made hostage to a solution on Kashmir. That position was articulated at a joint press conference between Qureshi and Mukherjee. Giving the example of India-China relations, Mukherjee explained that trade between the two countries had grown by leaps and bounds without awaiting the resolution of their border dispute. One need not cancel out the other and it could even help the process of resolution of the bigger issues, he said. Qureshi agreed that one complements the other.

Zardari has big dreams for India-Pakistan trade relations. He speaks about creating special economic zones in the border areas, about providing power to India, of joint ventures between the two countries. I want to capture the Indian economy and make it dependent on Pakistan, he said once. Indeed, the subject took up much of the meeting between him and Mukherjee.

In their joint statement, both sides reiterated the importance of enhancing mutually beneficial economic and commercial cooperation and agreed to discuss further steps for facilitating trade and redressing the trade imbalance.

But it was also made amply clear that Pakistan was not abandoning the Kashmir cause in its pursuit of improved trade with India. In Pakistan, the composite dialogue process has been seen as a frustratingly slow mechanism when it comes to the issues closest to its heart the core issue of Kashmir and the disputes over Siachen and Sir Creek, even though the last two have been tantalisingly close to resolution for several years now.

Qureshi served up his governments desire for a grand reconciliation with India, but he was also quick to underline that this did not mean that Pakistan was ready to jump into a shot-gun wedding with India. Speaking for the millions of Pakistanis who feel the same way, he underlined that progress had not been even on all eight subjects in the composite dialogue, especially on Kashmir. He called for more focus on these areas while consolidating the progress made in other areas. Moreover, while declaring openness to innovative new ideas, the Pakistani Foreign Minister emphasised the countrys default position on Kashmir, calling for a resolution in accordance with the United Nations resolutions.

In a 2005 interview, Musharraf described the U.N. resolutions as irrelevant to the emerging scenario. But it is unclear where the new government stands on his four-point proposals for Kashmir. In an April interview, Prime Minister Gillani described those proposals as half-baked and reiterated Pakistans commitment to a resolution of the issue through the U.N. resolutions. Qureshi was non-committal about the Musharraf formula.

But despite the suspicion that India is dragging its feet on Kashmir, both sides agreed that the Kashmir-specific cross-LoC confidence-building measures had helped in improving the lives of Kashmiris. The Ministers decided to continue implementing these measures, discussed ways of improving them and also talked about new proposals.

Kashmiris have denounced the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus service, which was inaugurated with much fanfare, as a sham because of the procedures and the time involved in securing permits. It has taken some people as long as a year and a half, negating the idea for which the bus service was originally set up. The buses run virtually empty. The two sides nevertheless decided to make this bus service and the Poonch-Rawalakot service weekly instead of fortnightly. A working group is to meet shortly to figure out how to make the procedure simpler. Also on the anvil are the finalisation of modalities for intra-Kashmir trade and a truck service.

Despite the satisfaction expressed by both governments at the overall direction of the peace process, the Mukherjee visit appears to have left Pakistanis cold. If media commentary was any indictor, there is a palpable general sense of disappointment that no progress was made on Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek. For India, on the other hand, the uncertainty that surrounds the future of the coalition government, the multiple power centres of the new dispensation, and actions that seem to contradict statements such as the sudden reappearance of jihadi groups that had been forced underground remain sources of worry. But in both countries, there is also the realisation that the inherent value of remaining engaged, even if the process is slow and sometimes appears unyielding, cannot be underestimated.

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