The freeze persists


Why Pak-India ties remain in a state of limbo

Pak-India relations have yet to come out of doldrums. Sometime things happen on the LoC adding fresh tensions. At other times, things go wrong in matters presumed to be under civilian jurisdiction thus stalling the process of talks. The issue of punishing those behind the Mumbai attacks, raised repeatedly by India, seems to have been put on the backburner for reasons known only to government. The PML-N has been almost eight months in power and yet there is no significant breakthrough in relations between the two countries. The Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma was expected to inaugurate the ‘India show’ exhibition in Lahore on Friday where he was to announce a roadmap for liberalisation of bilateral trade but media reports suggest he is unlikely to come because mistrust between the two countries over normalising bilateral trade has deepened.

This brings to question Nawaz Sharif’s avowed keenness to bring the two countries closer. Judging from the statements from the other side of the border, the Indian government was at least as keen to evolve better relations as Sharif. Were there hindrances from the Indian side? Did the PML-N government lose its earlier steam? Or was it not free to take decisions needed to facilitate the peace process on its own?

To make MFN status more palatable to the extremist fringe in Pakistan a new term ‘non-discriminatory market access (NDMA)’ has been coined. Commerce Minister Khurrum Dastgir had promised to give the status to India in 45 days instead of three years. This was, however, linked to access for 250-300 of Pakistani items at lowered duties. The offer was supposed to be a major political concession to the Congress party. The offer of market access by the Indian side, one learns, was not enough to persuade those opposing further opening of trade with India. New Delhi offered a timeframe of one and a half years for the market access, while Pakistan wanted implementation within six months. But then there is also a mention of ‘other elements having jumped in’ calling for linking of trade liberalisation with the resumption of composite dialogue suspended after the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Aware of the pressures exerted by ‘other elements’, Khurram Dastgir had argued that resumption of composite dialogue was vital, for one incident on the border was enough to derail the entire process.

When serious talks on trade were started a couple of years back it was maintained that increased volume of trade and commerce would generate a momentum of its own which would help in the resolution of outstanding issues. Why should one insist on initiation of the composite dialogue as a precondition then? While the Indian side has to hasten the process of granting access to Pakistani items, Islamabad needs to drop its insistence on simultaneous initiation of the composite dialogue.