Pakistan-India relations (Business Recorder) May 05, 2010

Visiting India last month I had three questions on my mind: One, what are the expectations Indians have from the resumption of talks between the two countries? Two, while efforts are being made by some lobbies to build an anti-India mood over the water issue, what is the thinking on this issue in India? And lastly, what is the mood of the Indian media on the resumption of talks after a long pause since the Mumbai terrorist attack?

Businessmen, professionals and the journalists’ pet source the taxi drivers do not expect much from the forthcoming talks. Senior journalist K. Katyal said that both the countries would have to handle the talks delicately as the hawks on both sides may try creating hurdles. Most of the people feel that while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is sincere in having meaningful talks, he remains under pressure from the opposition and his party hawks. A speaker at the ‘Aman ki Asha’ Business meet even suggested to the Pakistani delegation lightly that “please ask your prime minister not to praise Manmohan jee as it makes his peace initiative difficult in Delhi.”

Perhaps same is true in Islamabad where President Zardari’s initial overtures towards India and the positive response it received across the border were snubbed by the establishment. Though he has now learnt to sing to the military band’s tunes and be cautious, the pressure on him has not been let off.

But the positive message came through from no less a person than the Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who according to Times of India “led the Indian government’s tough talks against terror emanating from Pakistan.”  His eight point economic agenda for normalisation of relations between the two countries earned him the title of “avatar” from ToI. His points programme is: Improvement of communications; Liberalisation of trade regime; Creation of transit facilities; Ensuring complementarities of export surpluses; Unfettered free movement of goods; Transit trade to Afghanistan and Central Asia; Improvement of infrastructure for trade and transport; and replacement of existing positive list by negative list of goods beyond which it (Pakistan) would permit imports from India.

Many Pakistani businessmen liked Mukerjee’s programme but complained that it was quite one-sided as he forgot to mention the non-tariff barriers that restrict Pakistan’s exports to India. Hero Honda, the world largest bike producer and former chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) M. L. Munjal was more forthcoming and suggested that if Pakistan fears that Indian goods would storm the Pakistani market, let there be only exports from Pakistan to India for a couple of years so that businessmen from the other side get the confidence. Being a migrant from this side of the Wagah, Munjal was all for promoting love and peace. He recited an Urdu couplet that sums it up: “Mita denay ko nafrat ik sadi ki/ mohabat ka aik lamha he bohat ha.”

A few years back my friend Satish Anand had organised an IT conference in Pakistan in which Indian participants talked about sub-contracting the IT related work to the companies here as the cost of doing business in India is rising. This time the doyen of Indian IT industry, Chairman of Infosys, Narayan Murthy offered that “Indian companies can help Pakistani firms; they can start operations there provided our businessmen and customers are certain that the environment of cooperation is permanent.” Now the catch phrase is “environment of cooperation permanent.” Given the topsy-turvy Pakistan India relations that are held hostage by the terrorists and Pakistan’s internal disorder, consistency is hard to promise. That is the reason that most BPO work is not out-sourced to Pakistan.

On the ignitable water issue, a new thinking is emerging in India. Ravinder Singh of Innovative Technology & Projects stood up in last month’s Pakistan-India business meet and suggested that both countries should review the Indus Water Treaty to share the benefits of controlling flood water and power. His thesis is that the upstream dams on the rivers assigned to Pakistan should be jointly managed and the benefits should be shared by both countries. He circulated a paper among the participants on the last day of the conference showing that by managing the flood water and producing electricity Pakistan and India would gain immensely. Honestly, I don’t think many of the participants took his proposal seriously. But in a chat with a friend who is a senior retired civil servant I was surprised when he said that sharing of water resources could be an item in the agenda of the forthcoming talks. Another aspect which is emerging on this issue is that the Indian Kashmir government and leaders have started saying that the Indus Water Treaty was signed by Delhi without compensating them for giving Kashmir rivers water to Pakistan. This reminded me of a chat I had with a former Secretary of Water and Power a few years back. He confided that Indians have always brought Muslim Kashmiri engineers to the talks on Baglihar Dam to show that the benefit of electricity produced by this dam would go to the Kashmiris. Yes the Kashmiris for whose rights we have pledged Pakistan’s entire foreign policy.

On media’s role in building the peace bridge Vinod Mehta, Editor-in-Chief of Outlook magazine said that media should not be blamed by the peace activists for reflecting the people’s mood. Now this I felt is over-simplification of the media’s role. Media does not just reflect the people’s mood it also plays the role of opinion-maker and does it quite blatantly. Take for instance the coverage in the Indian media regarding the fact that Hafiz Saeed is roaming around free. Most TV journalists who covered the conference asked that how peace is possible when Pakistan is not taking any action against Hafiz Saeed. Agreed Pakistan should take action and should not give excuses that they don’t have enough evidence against him. All his speeches and writing in which he has been inspiring Jihad against India are enough to hold him on charges of instigating violence in a neighbouring country. Having said that my contention with the Indian media was that 37 million voted in the last elections in Pakistan and the four major parties that emerged have been pro-peace with India. So when the extremists are given coverage by Pakistani and Indian media they should also give equal if not more space to the people who are for peace and cooperation. Unfortunately that does not make the copy juicy and media thus fails in both countries to be responsible on such a sensitive subject — a peace initiative that will bring better life to over one billion people of the sub-continent. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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