Ball in Pakistan’s court, says senior government official involved in negotiations

Three weeks ahead of External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna’s scheduled visit to Pakistan for negotiations with his counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar, highly placed Indian government sources are cautioning against hopes of a significant forward movement in the relationship between the two countries — even the dialogue has been preceded by a symbolically significant decision to resume cricketing ties, and speculation on a possible visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“There is a possibility for limited progress on trade,” a senior government official involved in the negotiations told The Hindu, “and there is scope for more travel between the two countries. There is perhaps some prospect of improvement in trade and travel across the Line of Control, too. But in all these things, quite frankly, the ball is in Islamabad’s court.”

Mr. Krishna is scheduled to visit Islamabad early next month to review progress during a cycle of talks between high-level bureaucrats on issues ranging from terrorism and trade to the conflict over Jammu and Kashmir.

“The atmospherics between the two countries are steady,” the official noted, “but in the talks we’ve had so far on larger issues, like the Siachen glacier or Sir Creek, it has been clear that the positions of the two countries are too far apart for immediate resolution.” “In essence,” he said, “Mr. Krishna’s visit will give us an opportunity to see where we are, and what we have to do.”

The official’s remarks come amidst growing concern in New Delhi that Pakistan’s powerful military may be forcing its civilian government to go slow on the peace process, as well as frustration over Islamabad’s failure to act against the perpetrators of the 26/11 attacks. Last week, a senior military official told The Hindu New Delhi’s concerns had been underlined by a string of low-grade clashes along the Line of Control, as well as renewed infiltration. “We base our assessments on what we know the Pakistan army’s generals are telling each other,” he said, “and it’s not heartening.”

“In New Delhi,” said Sushant Sareen, an analyst at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, “there is a growing conviction that the Pakistani strategic establishment has not made a decisive commitment to peace with India. It seeks peace along its eastern border, because of the country’s internal problems, but its attitude to India hasn’t changed. It continues to see India as an existential threat, which has to be neutralised.”

High officials in New Delhi fear the mounting number of deals that have failed at the eleventh hour bear out this argument. Earlier this summer, both countries finalised a relatively liberal visa regime — first agreed on in 1974 —which would have eased travel for some categories of visitors, like businesspeople. During President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to New Delhi in April, he and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed the deal would be signed the following month during a meeting of the two countries’ home secretaries. Following that meeting, though, Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s then Interior Minister, insisted the agreement ought only to be signed at a “political level.”

MFN status

“Look at what has happened on trade,” an official with first-hand knowledge of negotiations on the subject said. “India gave Pakistan most-favoured nation status in 1996, it refused to reciprocate, in violation of its World Trade Organisation commitments. Then, in November, they announced they would grant MFN status, only to back out six hours later, saying they’d at first introduce a negative list, barring trade only in a narrow band of commodities.”

“But then,” the official said, “when we asked for the two commerce secretaries to meet, iron out objections Pakistan has to, what they say are, Indian non-tariff barriers, and move forward, they shot the proposal down, saying the commerce secretaries would only meet in the next cycle of talks.”

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