Invitation Diplomacy – Asif Ezdi

Shahbaz’s Sharif’s meeting with Manmohan Singh in the Indian capital last Thursday was the second by a leading Pakistani official with the Indian prime minister in the three months that have passed since the New York meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries at the end of September. The last one was a ‘courtesy call’ by Sartaj Aziz on November 13 while on a visit to India for an ASEM foreign ministers’ conference.

Shahbaz was visiting India as chief minister of Punjab at the invitation of his counterpart from the Indian state of Punjab, but he met Manmohan effectively as a special envoy of Nawaz and in his informal capacity as the country’s de facto deputy prime minister. The diplomatic nature of Shahbaz’s mission was underlined by the fact that he was accompanied by Tariq Fatemi, the prime minister’s closest and most trusted foreign policy adviser. In addition, the presence of Minister of State for Commerce Khurram Dastagir at this meeting and Shahbaz’s discussions a day later with the Indian commerce minister signal the keenness of the Nawaz government to move forward on the trade issue.

At his meeting with Manmohan, Shahbaz delivered a message from Nawaz to the Indian prime minister reaffirming Pakistan’s desire for the resumption of the suspended bilateral dialogue, the resolution of disputes over Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek and water issues and for the expansion of trade. Shahbaz also conveyed the prime minister’s wish that Manmohan Singh should visit Pakistan before next year’s parliamentary elections in India.

Not surprisingly, the Indian prime minister was noncommittal on a visit to Pakistan. Its chances have in fact been diminished further by the drubbing which the ruling Congress Party received at the hands of the BJP in four of the five state elections held during the past month. Following its rout in these four states, which lie at the heart of the all-important Hindi belt, the Manmohan government has become even more wary of making any diplomatic moves which could open it to the charge that it is ‘soft’ on the country’s ‘archenemy’.

If Manmohan has not made a trip to Pakistan so far, it is certainly not for any lack of importunateness on our part. All Pakistani leaders who have been in office since Manmohan became prime minister in 2004 – Musharraf, Zardari, Gilani, Parvaiz Ashraf and Nawaz – have been pressing him repeatedly and persistently to give them the honour of a visit.

With the exception of Nawaz, all of them also invited themselves to India on one pretext or the other. The favourite excuse used by our leaders is some sports event in India and, failing that, a visit to the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. This tradition was started by Ziaul Haq and has been continued by his successors. Following in his footsteps, Musharraf and Gilani undertook visits to witness Pakistan-India cricket matches, while Zardari and Ashraf used the pretext of a trip to Ajmer to pay respect at the shrine of the Sufi saint. Shahbaz has now chosen the ‘World Kabaddi Championship’ final in Ludhiana in Indian Punjab for the same purpose. There is a possibility that after the Indian elections, Nawaz might also follow this well-trodden path for a trip to India.

While our leaders have always responded with alacrity to any hint from the Indian side of a willingness to host their visit, India has been taking the position that a visit by their prime minister to Pakistan could only be considered if the ground has first been prepared for a substantive and significant outcome. What that means in plain language is that there must be a prior assurance of a tangible gain for India – a ‘deliverable’ in the language of Indian diplomacy – that serves to advance the country’s foreign policy and security interests. This is nothing unusual. Other countries also follow the same approach. It is only Pakistan that makes a high-level visit an end in itself.

There are three concrete concessions that India is seeking from Pakistan that could possibly tempt Manmohan Singh to pay a visit to Pakistan: the grant of MFN status; overland transit facilities for India to Afghanistan and Central Asia; and the reactivation of the dialogue on Kashmir started by Musharraf for an ‘out-of-the-box’ solution.

There is also possibly a fourth ‘deliverable’ that could prompt a visit by the Indian prime minister: an acceptance by Pakistan of the Indian offer to sell electricity and Qatari gas, which Delhi has for months been pressing Islamabad to agree to. This issue was brought up with Shahbaz by Sharma and the press release issued by the Indian commerce ministry on their meeting states that the two sides agreed on the need to “revitalise” the ongoing technical talks for an electricity transmission line and the export of power and gas from India to Pakistan.

As regards trade, the Zardari government made a commitment in 2011 to grant MFN status to India without taking into consideration its negative impact on Pakistan’s industry and without demanding from India that it should dismantle the massive non-tariff barriers (NTBs) which form an invisible wall to the export of Pakistani goods to India. While the Nawaz government strongly favours the expansion of trade with India, its public statements on the MFN status have been inconsistent.

Last Monday, Dastagir said that Pakistan had already given India 82 percent benefits attached to MFN status and that the remaining 18 percent benefits were not being granted because of “political differences”. Then, in reply to a question by the press last Thursday, Shahbaz said that Pakistan has proposed a non-discriminatory trade agreement which India has accepted. But the silence of the press release issued by the Indian commerce ministry’s on this proposal suggests that India intends to keep pressing its demand for MFN status without linking it to the removal of NTBs.

The plethora of contradictory statements by the government on the question of trade is a reflection of muddled thinking, lack of input in policymaking from state institutions and experts, and the whims of party leaders with a narrow or distorted vision. It is not of course confined to the MFN issue. It can be seen equally in the confusion in other areas of our India policy.

On the grant of transit rights to India, the PML-N election manifesto promises the opening of land routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran. Now that this party is ruling the country, this commitment has become official policy. Khurram Dastagir said last Monday that the grant to India of a trade passage to Afghanistan via the Wahgah border was under consideration. One day later, Railways Minister Khwaja Saad Rafique, also declared that Pakistan is ready to offer its road and rail routes to all regional countries, including India. Amazingly, and shockingly, there has been no government or expert study as yet of the strategic, political and economic consequences of such a far-reaching concession to India.

Earlier this month, Sartaj Aziz pointed to the serious environmental and ecological consequences of Indian military deployment in Siachen and called for the withdrawal of its troops from the area. That demand was predictably and promptly rejected by India. If we are serious about this matter, we must forcefully bring it to the attention of the international community, backed by scientific data.

Sartaj Aziz last week expressed the view that if there is to be any breakthrough in Pakistan-India relations, it will be after next year’s elections and the formation of a new government in India. That hope is unlikely to be fulfilled if Pakistan continues to rely exclusively on the bilateral approach or on its invitation diplomacy.

It is time to reverse the Musharraf era policy of not raising our disputes with India in international forums. That approach has failed and Pakistan must make use of all such forums and diplomatic channels to mobilise international support.