By Baqir Sajjad Syed and Nasir Jamal
5 November 2011
Islamabad/Lahore: Key civilian and military functionaries met on Friday to discuss the process of easing trade with India in the run-up to grant it the MFN (most favoured nation) status.
“As part of regular consultations, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar today consulted all stakeholders on foreign policy issues, including the resumed dialogue process with India, at the Foreign Ministry,” said a cautiously-worded press statement issued by the FO spokesperson’s office.
There was no mention of which ‘stakeholders’ attended the meeting presided over by the foreign minister. But according to a source, the meeting was attended by officials from the military, intelligence, ministries of interior, commerce and defence and the Foreign Office.
The meeting was meant to discuss progress in the resumed dialogue with India in view of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s expected interaction with his Indian counterpart Dr Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of Saarc summit in Maldives next week. The consultative session at the Foreign Office also served as the preparatory meeting for the next round of resumed dialogue likely to commence later this month.
Reuters quoted an unnamed Indian government official as having said: “From the initial announcement of an unconditional grant of an MFN, there appears to be a clear backtrack.”
Delhi’s assessment was immediately dismissed by the Foreign Office whose spokesperson Tehmina Janjua said: “Pakistan is not backtracking.”
Notwithstanding Ms Janjua’s media assertion, a participant of the meeting, while sharing the essence of the discussion during a private conversation, projected MFN to be slow-tracked for now because of strong reaction.
Apart from the MFN issue, he said, there was a broad agreement on continuing engagements with India.
Meanwhile, talking to a group of journalists in Lahore, Prime Minister Gilani clarified that his government had not “given” the MFN status to India. “The cabinet has only given its approval in principle to move forward on the issue and permitted the ministry of commerce, which is actively engaged in trade talks with New Delhi, to negotiate with it trade-related issues.”
Mr Gilani said he would brief parliament on the MFN status at an appropriate time, adding that cabinet approval was necessary to move forward on the issue.
He was of the opinion that liberalisation of trade with India would benefit Pakistan’s economy. “It does not mean that we have given up our stand on other issues, including Kashmir. Look at the rising trade volume between China and India despite their border disputes.”
The prime minister said he had persuaded his Indian counterpart to resume the composite dialogue (on all outstanding issues and disputes, including Kashmir) stalled after the Mumbai attacks in Nov 2008. “I told Dr Manmohan at our meetings in Sharm el-Sheikh, Thimphu and Mohali that terrorists were common enemies of both countries and we should not let one incident hold the whole peace process as hostage.”
Agencies add: In France, the Indian prime minister has welcomed Pakistan’s decision to grant the MFN status to India, but said it should have been done long ago, according to the Economic Times newspaper.
”Better late than never. I welcome it,” Dr Manmohan told reporters in the French coastal resort of Cannes on Friday.
“As one who believes that, rightly or wrongly, the destinies of countries in South Asia are very closely linked. I welcome the decision of Pakistan to grant us the MFN treatment.”
However, he said he felt this decision should have come long ago. ”I think it is nearly 17 years ago when India gave the most favoured nation status to Pakistan unilaterally and Pakistan has taken so much time.” India granted Pakistan MFN status way back in 1996, but Islamabad so far held out on reciprocating because of opposition from some trade lobbies and religious and hardline political parties which contended that such a move would harm the country’s stand on the Kashmir issue.