Cricket, Dargah: What about trade diplomacy?
The din of battle drums that had risen to deafening proportions in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks has slowly, but surely faded since.
The PPP-led government has been criticized for myriad reasons ranging from the energy shortage and mounting inflation to corruption and bad governance. However its efforts on the front of normalizing relations with India are arguably among its key achievements.
Hina Rabbani Khars official visit to India earlier this year, received as much attention for the official agenda as it did for the Pakistani foreign ministers choice of wardrobe. This time around, the unofficial visit of President Asif Ali Zardari is being hailed as a major breakthrough in relations between the two countries.
Besides being the focus of media outlets in India and Pakistan, the visit has also caught the attention of the international press. The Los Angeles Times stated that, "Sundays one-day visit was heavy on symbolism if not on substance". President Zardaris invitation to Indian Premier Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan is also being awaited eagerly by international observers as a harbinger of improved relations between the two countries.
When the President visits Ajmer, the media frenzy is understandable. However there are many other efforts afoot, most of which have received only passing reference in the media.
One such development is expected from April 12 to 15, at the Lifestyle Pakistani exhibition where about a hundred of Pakistans leading manufacturers of garments, home textiles, designer furniture, food products, marble ornaments, intricate handicrafts, leather apparel and accessories will showcase their offerings at New Delhis Pragati Maidan.
Federal Commerce Minister Makhdoom Amin Fahim, Commerce Secretary Zafar Mahmood and TDAP Chairman Tariq Puri shall accompany the exhibitors to New Delhi and are expected to hold meetings with members of Indian trade bodies.
While government officials are quick to term such events as game changers, even those businesses that are taking part in the exhibition are only cautiously optimistic.
"We don expect a lot of trade until both countries actually come through on trade liberalization measures that have been talked about," commented the chief executive of a prominent textile apparels manufacturer. He expressed hope that the granting of MFN status to India will result in similar relaxations for Pakistani exporters. The restrictive visa regime is another boulder in the path of free movement of individuals between the two countries.
But perhaps the biggest impediment to trade liberalization is the group of hawks on each side of the border, in the media, the armed forces, the civilian establishment and even in the private sector. Every little step towards improved relations between the two countries has been followed by the ever-rising clamour of opponents. But governments of the two countries must remain committed to trade liberalization. Improved trade relations will open up economic opportunities that are direly needed to employ the booming youth populations of both countries.
Consumers of both countries will also benefit greatly; a recent report prepared jointly by the Asia Foundation, SDPI and other think tanks asserted that consumers in Pakistan can count on savings of over 200 million dollars annually if just 44 items that are currently on the countrys sensitive list are allowed to be imported freely from India.
Manmohan Singhs intended visit to Pakistan will definitely be considered a major leap in relations between the two countries. But it is equally important that the visa regime is revisited soon, so that citizens of both nations can also travel freely across borders.
Visits by dignitaries set the stage for addressing the core issue between Pakistan and India. But visits by students, tourists and business owners will do more to practically build ties between the two nations.