Mindful that less than six months remain for the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh government, some top interlocutors of India and Pakistan have engineered an initiative that aims to pave the way for a Summit-level visit from the Indian side – a part of which will play out from Friday.
Pakistan’s Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the No.2 in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League and the trusted brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will be on a chopper to New Delhi Friday primarily as a trade minister – but with a more ambitious agenda.
It started with India’s Commerce Minister Anand Sharma looking for ideas for a lasting imprint on India-Pakistan trade and economic-ties-induced spark or a miracle that could lead to a trip to Pakistan by his boss and prime minister himself, people in the know maintain.
A courtesy call on Sharma by Shahid Malik, the former Pakistan high commissioner, created the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. A message was sent that New Delhi would like to see cross-border trade rise beyond $2-billion, where Islamabad contributes $600 million.
There was a slight problem, though. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif holds the commerce portfolio and Khurram Dastagir Khan is his minister of state, who would have then got ranked with his Indian counterpart E.M. Sudarsa Natchiappan.
So what role would Anand Sharma have?
Here Punjabi ingenuity came in handy: Nawaz Sharif decided that the mantle of unofficial commerce minister would fall upon his brother Shahbaz Sharif.
Islamabad also sees an opportunity in economic crisis via this visit. There is this unpredictable Pakistani army and the influential Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) playing ball with Sharif’s authority.
Then there is the spectre of Washington moving its troops out of the region in 2014, and a more immediate threat handed over by Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel in Islamabad Monday if blockades to NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan continued a day longer.
India, on its part, faces decelerating growth and a push from traders and farmers from our side of the Punjab is politically feasible.
But there also have been setbacks to bilateral ties, political and otherwise. Like heroine tucked into bags of cement that were imported recently into India and businessmen being turned back at the Wagah-Attari border if they came in a minute after 4 p.m.
The classic Catch 22 is the debate over granting ‘most favourite nation’ status to India — a standard World Trade Organization term, which India has granted to Pakistan. But Islamabad is reluctant because of its Urdu translation – sabse pasandeeda mulk!
But the feeling is the government is warming up to a more contemporary term floated by the Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry – NDA or non-discriminatory access. Curiously, the abbreviation NDA was the name of the previous ruling coalition in India – the National Democratic Alliance.
Trade delegations are also now crossing the border with increasing regularity. A prominent one is the Pakistan India Joint Business Forum, headed by Nestle Pakistan chairman Yawar Ali and Hero Group’s Sunil Kant Munjal. Their agriculture task force is meeting in Ludhiana on the same dates as the Shahbaz Sharif visit.
As for the upcoming visit, Shahbaz Sharif may be new to international diplomacy, but he remains the most experienced chief minister that Pakistani Punjab has had in its history. He also has a warm thing going with the ruling family of the Indian Punjab, led by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.
The public content of Shahbaz Sharif’s visit includes kabaddi in Ludhiana and talking shop on agricultural sweepstakes among two “land-locked neighbours”.
But these niceties, he is meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a fellow Punjabi — a gesture of some consequence, coming as it does after two misunderstandings, one on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September over “dehati aurat” and another one earlier this month when his older brother purportedly talked of war over Kashmir.
Pakistan Inc is reconciled to two large trading partners in their neighbourhood, India and China, and consumers benefiting. It is okay with a trade deficit with India, just as it has with China, and making the surpluses elsewhere. It also sees trade liberalization as benefiting consumers of both sides as quality improves and prices fall.