Beyond the Bitterness
Are India and Pakistan ready to enter into a new era of engagement?
Pakistan’s presidents have hitherto been practicing cricket diplomacy. Aware of Pakistani weakness for cricket, India’s prime ministers would routinely invite Pakistan’s presidents and prime ministers to attend cricket matches, even though their relations were tense.
The visits are largely private but often serve as informal summits, where the two sides talk frankly without being encumbered by a clutch of aides whispering in their ears. And these occasions have often helped repair broken ties.
In 1987, India’s Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi invited President Ziaul-Haq to watch the cricket match at Jaipur despite the fact that he had recently accused Pakistan of aiding insurgents in Indian Punjab. Zia-ulHaq’s visit was rounded off with a meeting with Gandhi which resulted in watering down mutual mistrust.
In 2005, India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, invited Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to a oneday cricket match in New Delhi. Referring to the meeting in his book, In the Line of Fire, Musharraf said that the visit that began as an informal one, ended in a “very positive joint declaration.” In March last year, Manmohan Singh invited Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to watch the India-Paki-
stan World Cup semifinal in Mohali.
These initiatives were evidence enough of India’s desire to resuscitate bilateral relations that had nosedived following the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, allegedly sponsored by elements in Pakistan.
Meanwhile there have been positive vibes indicating a change in the air with a marked urge among saner people on both sides to be realistic, put the ugly past behind and move on. For Pakistan it was perhaps the insult and humiliation by the U.S. that jolted the military leadership to realize that its neighbors should be cultivated and not hated.
Such positive indicators called for a summit to give the movement further boost but there were no cricket matches within sight. The only other alternative was a pilgrimage to the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer. President Zardari, accordingly, opted to go on a “private” trip to India and set the course for “pilgrimage diplomacy.”
The economist in Manmohan Singh, meanwhile, assessed the benefit of exploiting the occasion for an informal tete-a-tete over an elaborate formal “summit” and invited President Zardari to a luncheon en route to Ajmer. As expected, the two covered more ground in their 40-minute face to face talk than could have been possible in a formal summit weighed down by a clutch of advisers and aides.
Together, they romped about the entire stretch of bilateral issues. Amongst other things, Dr. Singh raised the issue of Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind behind the Mumbai attacks. Emphasizing the need to prosecute him, he reiterated that action against those involved in the terror attacks in India would be a major issue by which Indian people would judge their ties with Pakistan. Zardari referred to the legal issues involved and both leaders agreed that a structured discussion on Saeed should be held during the coming Home Secretarylevel talks in Islamabad.
For his part, Zardari raised the issue of Pakistani microbiologist, Dr Khalil Chishty, 80, who is serving lifeimprisonment in an Indian jail. Chishty came to Ajmer in 1992 to meet his ailing mother. Zardari also raised issues of usual reference to Kashmir, the Siachen glacier and Sir Creek rounding it off with an invitation to Prime Minister Singh to visit Pakistan.
The host agreed that concerted, step by step moves, to find mutually acceptable solutions were necessary to improve bilateral relations. “We are willing to find practical and pragmatic solutions to all our issues. That is the message President Zardari and I wish to convey,” Dr. Singh told reporters after their meeting.
Zardari’s assessment of the talks as “very fruitful,” was underscored by the Indian Supreme court‘s order, immediately following the private summit, of not only allowing bail to Dr Chishty but also agreeing to hear a separate petition that he serve out the rest of his bail in Karachi.
Following Zardari-singh parleys, Pakistan’s commerce minister, Amin Fahim visited his Indian counterpart, Anand Sharma. Their meeting resulted in India literally opening the door for more trade with Pakistan. Besides the decision to consider easing visa facilities with the goal of a non-visa regime, India also agreed, ‘in principle,’ to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) from Pakistan besides opening a second integrated check post (ICP) on the border at Attari. The new post would pave way for the smooth flow of road traffic, provide upgraded and modern infrastructure for traders from both countries, and facilitate the people crossing the border.
Indian Home Minister P Chidambaram, Indian Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his Pakistani counterpart Shahbaz Sharif accompanied Sharma and Fahim in unveiling the plaque. Chidambaram termed the opening, a gateway of trade and prosperity to Central Asian countries that is bound to increase Indo-pak trade four folds.
Both countries have also agreed in principle to allow the opening of each other’s bank branches in their territories to facilitate financial transactions and ensure smooth trade. Both commerce ministers told reporters that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) favored opening branches in each other’s country.
While Sharma announced setting up of an India-Pakistan Business Council in the near future, Fahim said that they had also decided to open up negotiations in the hospitality, education and tourism sectors.
Furthermore, the Indian School of Business (ISB) at Hyderabad signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Karachi-based Institute of Business Administration (IBA) to provide executive education in Pakistan. Under the MoU, the ISB will offer open enrolment and custom-designed programs through its Centre for Executive Education.
And finally, India has offered to sell 500MW of electricity to Pakistan at about Rs15 per unit at the WagahAttari border.
Zardari’s private visit seems to have touched off a tsunami of goodwill and an urge to improve relations as never before. But the tempo needs to be sustained. That would require sincerity of purpose on both sides. India has already taken some positive initiatives. Now it is Pakistan’s turn. How it reciprocates India’s gestures will be watched internationally.
But the foremost precondition for Dr. Manmohan Singh’s acceptance of President Zardari’s invitation to visit Pakistan is for the latter to allay India’s concerns about terrorism being nurtured in Pakistan.
The following weeks and months will illustrate how sincere both sides are in implementing the promises they have made.