A 600-strong army of Pakistani businessmen, entrepreneurs, tea-buyers, fashionistas and rice exporters, led by Pakistan commerce minister Makhdoom Amin Fahim and Pakistan commerce secretary Zafar Mehmood, are descending on Delhi over the next 48 hours, in what amounts to a burst of creative energy rarely seen on this side of the border.
In fact, so many visas, except perhaps for a cricket match, have never been given before to Pakistanis at one time. These are to exhibit and curate an event called ‘Lifestyle Pakistan’, being held in Delhi on the eve of the pan-Punjabi festival, Baisakhi, over April 12-13.
The richest man in Pakistan, Mian Muhammed Mansha of the Nishat group, estimated to be worth $10 billion and with interests in textiles, banking and cement, is coming with his wife. So is S M Munir, president of the India-Pakistan chamber of commerce, who recently proposed a no-war pact between the two countries, as well as an economic zone between Kasur (in Pakistan) and Amritsar, to enable both economies to flourish. Then there is Gul Ahmed, the textile giant from Lahore, who manufactures everything from yarn to finished products.
The impending people’s invasion from Pakistan is so overwhelming that it almost puts in the shade the red carpet welcome being carefully plotted in the ministry of commerce and the prime minister’s office for the Pakistani commerce minister’s delegation that is arriving on April 12.
In fact, commerce secretary Rahul Khullar is chartering a plane to Amritsar so that he can receive Fahim and Mehmood at the Wagah-Attari border and fly them back to Delhi in comfort.
Meanwhile, a delegation of Pakistani tea buyers is arriving to source tea from India (all these years, Pakistanis have either been drinking inferior Earl Grey from the UK market or black tea from Kenya).
A delegation of rice exporters is coming, also for the first time, to talk to its Indian counterparts on the finer points of Basmati cultivation. There seems to be growing excitement across the border over the Indian distillation of oil from rice bran and exporting both to the rest of the world. Pakistani rice-growers, evidently, don’t know how to do this and want to learn from India. Many are also extremely keen on buying Indian distilling equipment. It seems as if the Pakistani rice-bowl, centred around Gujranwala, only a few miles outside Lahore could as a result become the new hotbed of distilling rice oil.
If all this is a far cry from the cacophony on how to conduct a dialogue on Kashmir, then Delhi’s decision to use trade and commerce as the wedge to expand the very limited conversation between India and Pakistan, limited to 10 points on the “composite dialogue” formulated in 1997 when I K Gujral was foreign minister, seems to have been supremely successful, at least so far.
In fact, talks between commerce minister Anand Sharma and his Pakistani counterpart, that will also take place on April 12, are expected to touch upon astonishing new requests and demands from Pakistan that India should invest much more in its strategic decision to expand the economies in both countries.
The main Pakistani demand is that India reduce its ‘sensitive list’ and reduce the tariff on Pakistani imports so that they are able to compete with goods India imports from elsewhere, for example Bangladesh. In the wake of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in September 2011, all tariff on its textile exports to India were waived, thereby setting textile manufacturers in Pakistan on the edge.
So, when Anand Sharma and Rahul Khullar went to Pakistan in February, it was as if the tenor of the conversation between the two sides had undergone a rapid transformation. Instead of the volley of demands that India get rid of its non-tariff barriers was heard a new request: Could India lower its tariff in line with those it gave to other least developing countries, like Bangladesh and Nepal?
Government sources said they would positively respond to Fahim’s request in his talks with Sharma on April 12, and at the same time seek reassurance that Pakistan will not backtrack from its promise to accord Most Favoured Nation status to India by the end of 2012.
In fact, Delhi has told Pakistan that it would prune its own ‘sensitive list’ of items it trades with Pakistan by about 30 per cent, that is, knock off 263 items from a list of 878 items, on the condition that it gives it a “clear commitment on the timeline” to MFN status.
There seems to be some nervousness in the Indian establishment over Pakistan’s progress towards MFN, perhaps because of the all-powerful reputation of the Pakistani army.
Even Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari’s flamboyant visit to Delhi over the Easter weekend, in which he and not the Indian side brought up the India-China model of bilateral relations, doesn’t seem to have totally assuaged the ultra-cautious Indians. According to the sources, Zardari’s comment that India and Pakistan should put contentious issues such as Kashmir on the backburner, just as India and China had done with their border dispute, was music to the ears of the prime minister and all others who heard it.
Meanwhile, home minister P Chidambaram has also been persuaded to relax his stance on how he will not allow the business and civilian visa regime to be liberalised unless Pakistan takes action on the Mumbai terror accused. The home secretaries from both sides are now expecting to meet next month.
If the stage is being set for peace to break out between India and Pakistan, then those arriving over the next 48 hours will have a big role in prolonging it.