Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Daily Times Editorial May 28, 2014

A good beginning Despite reservations in some circles, most Pakistanis welcomed Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif’s decision to attend Mr Narendra Modi’s swearing-in as the new PM of India at the latter’s invitation. Although similar invitations were extended to the heads of state and government of all the SAARC countries, all eyes were focused on the interaction between the PMs of traditional rivals Pakistan and India. And the warm welcome PM Modi extended to Nawaz Sharif raised the hopes of the hopeful, comprising most Pakistanis, while the sceptics, including the Kashmiris, seemed unconvinced. The body language and atmospherics at the first meeting between the two PMs seemed excellent. It could be claimed with confidence therefore, that a good beginning had been made. At the glittering swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan (President’s House) in New Delhi, the SAARC leaders in attendance were joined by a large invited crowd, including political and business leaders and celebrities from all segments of Indian society, including Bollywood’s well known figures. Mr Modi’s vigorous welcoming handshake with Nawaz Sharif underlined the mutual desire of the two leaders to nudge their bilateral relationship towards normalisation. Apprehensions accompanying Modi’s rise to the apex office include the fears of the minorities in India, particularly Muslims, about the dark past of Mr Modi, especially in the Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002 when he was the chief minister. Perhaps aware of his polarising and divisive past, Mr Modi’s message after taking oath of office was to build an ‘inclusive’ India with a relatively lean cabinet, the latter reflecting his slogan: “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”. This is intended to reinforce the election platform on which Mr Modi ran, emphasising good governance and economic development rather than the Hindutva agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the even more extreme stance of the BJP’s ‘mother’ movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which on the eve of the swearing-in ceremony and meeting with Nawaz Sharif, belligerently threatened that if Pakistan did not correct course vis-à-vis India, Mr Modi would be forced to press the nuclear button against it. On his part, PM Nawaz Sharif opened his innings in New Delhi with the statement that there existed a great chance to open a new chapter, starting from where he and former BJP PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee left off in 1999. He offered attractive investment opportunities to Indian businessmen, which no doubt went down well with the proven business-friendly Modi. It goes without saying that enhanced trade and business opportunities between Pakistan and India are to the mutual benefit of both despite the naysayers and sceptics in Pakistan. Trade between the two countries is officially at around $ 2.5 billion, with the balance heavily tilted towards India, whose exports account for $ 1.75 billion of the total. Around $ 3 billion trade is believed to be routed through Dubai, again tilted heavily in India’s favour and which deprives both countries of tax revenues. The issue of Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status, which India has long ago extended to Pakistan but has not been reciprocated, may now be revived under the new title of Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA). While the positives of the warm welcome to PM Nawaz Sharif and the overwhelming run of opinion in Pakistan that it was the right decision to accept the invitation from Mr Modi are welcome, there are still many issues that remain to trouble relations between the two South Asian neighbours. Memories of 1999, when General Musharraf’s adventure in Kargil effectively sealed the fate of the Sharif-Vajpayee rapprochement, haunt the renewed process of normalisation. However, 2014 is a very changed scenario from 1999. Pakistan is beset with trouble on its western border, including a homegrown Taliban insurgency that has been described as an existential threat to Pakistan’s security rather than any external enemy. The military therefore appears, contrary to conspiracy theorists, to be on board regarding the critical need to normalise relations with India on the eastern border. That of course does not mean that long standing issues such as Kashmir and the Pakistan-India rivalry for influence in Afghanistan are about to disappear. They can cause tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi again as in the past. However, internally the fears of the minorities in India, particularly Muslims, at the rise to power of Modi have been underlined by a communal clash in his home province Gujarat on the very day he took oath. The underlying communal tensions lingering from 2002 burst forth into clashes between the Hindu and Muslim communities after an innocuous traffic accident. Reportedly, the first one-to-one meeting between PMs Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi yielded the expected positions of both sides. India raised the issue of terrorism and closure of the Mumbai attacks case. Pakistan seemed to agree on cooperation to overcome terrorism while emphasising the economic side of bilateral relations. Naturally, such summits are always followed up by experts and officials’ working out of the details of the vision of their leaders. Let us hope that that process will now proceed with dispatch, in contrast with the virtual halt during the Congress government’s later tenure.

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