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.
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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 Regional Cooperation on preferential trade and transit rights among all SAARC members.
It was only in 2011 — when Pakistan needed trade with India, especially to import electricity and realised that Indian goods entering Pakistan via Dubai were exuberantly costly — that Islamabad offered MFN trading status to India but never delivered because of the popular reaction to the Urdu translation of the expression: aziztareen mulk.
Quoting Shakespeare yet again, one might say that all’s well that ends well. But to do so where relations between India and Pakistan are concerned would be rash. There have been quite a few “breakthroughs” in India-Pakistan relations — from Tashkent (1966) to Shimla (1972) to Lahore (1999) — that have proved to be duds. If Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reneged on his solemn but private assurance to Indira Gandhi that he would “gradually” convert the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir into a permanent border between the two neighbours, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus ride to Lahore was followed by the Kargil War.
Nothing so disastrous can happen to an agreement on trade, but it is ironic enough that just when the two commerce ministers were congratulating each other on their agreement to keep open the trade route at the Wagah-Attari border round the clock, trade across the LoC — that began in 2008 together with a much-hyped bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad — was in deep crisis. One of the Pakistani truck drivers, caught bringing in “brown sugar” worth Rs 114 crore, was arrested. Demanding the immediate return of the alleged culprit as well as of the contraband, the Pakistanis detained as many as 27 Indian truckers on their side of the LoC. They are also refusing to let 48 Pakistani truck drivers, on whom there is no restriction, to return home, back in until the alleged drug smuggler comes back with them.
Incidentally, the two commerce ministers jointly claimed that the high-sounding MFN is the creation of the WTO. They are wrong. The WTO inherited it from the GATT — General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade — signed in 1947, after the international community had failed to set up an international trade organisation along the UN, World Bank and IMF two years earlier.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator