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The recent India-Pakistan trade breakthrough was a long time in the making.
What is in a name? That we call a rose by any other name will smell as sweet”, said the Bard. But that was nearly four-and-a-half centuries ago.
In present times, things seem to have changed. What better evidence can there be than the enormous fuss Pakistan has made for long years over the expression “most favoured nation (MFN)” trading status, which almost all other governments and people around the globe have been using for nearly seven decades without any difficulty.
At last, commerce ministers of India and Pakistan — Anand Sharma and Khurram Dastgir Khan respectively — sorted out the problem last week by dumping MFN and coining instead the phrase “non-discriminatory market access” to enable the two neighbours to trade with each other. There is a long and painful story behind this highly belated accord.
After the 1965 war, Pakistan broke off all trading relations with this country, and the prohibition was made even stricter after the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. The question of Pakistan giving India MFN status just did not arise because of Islamabad’s policy of no agreement with India on any subject until the “core issue” of Kashmir was solved.
During the 1980s, Pakistan once had an acute shortage of wheat. It was buying wheat from Argentina, Australia and other countries at high cost. Its problem was aggravated because its port of Karachi was choked, and the unloading of wheat shipments took an unduly long time. At that time, India had a big surplus of wheat. In this atmosphere, Pakistan’s suave and astute foreign minister, Sahabzada Yaqub Ali Khan, came to Delhi on one of his frequent visits. At his usual off-the-record interaction with a select group of journalists, we asked him why Pakistan didn’t take all the wheat it needed from India, especially when it could be transported from Amritsar to Lahore in a jiffy. His reply was candid: “Our people don’t like the idea of eating Indian wheat.”
What the Sahabzada said politely was put more bluntly only the other day by Pakistan’s highly respected commentator, Khaled Ahmed: All Pakistanis are brought up on “textbook anti-India sentiment”. The raison d’etre of the all-powerful Pakistan army is its proclaimed conviction that India is an “existential and eternal” threat to Pakistan. No wonder, therefore, that when the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was formed in 1995, and all its members were urged to extend MFN status to all others, Pakistan defiantly refused to do so in India’s case. It also defied the mandate of the South Asian Association for continued…