Isolated globally, Pakistan turns a good neighbour with 'visa card'

It is after decades that the people of India and Pakistan, most often bitter neighbours, have something to cheer about.

The signing of agreement to liberalise the visa regime has been the most significant and concrete step that the two countries have inked in recent times. No wonder, peoples of the two countries have welcomed the historic step as travel restrictions have been eased for the first time in four decades.

There is, of course,  a long way to go for the two governments to achieve their goal of ‘normalising relations.’ Nevertheless, the Sept 8 agreement – coming along with the confidence building measures (CBMs) for Line of Control travel and trade -- has generated new hope. The bilateral talks, suspended after the barbaric 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai in 2008, resumed two years ago and since then sincere efforts have been made by the two sides due to a thaw in the relations.

The rapid improvements have been hailed by experts in both countries. Writing in the influential Dawn newspaper of Pakistan, Moeed Yusuf, a South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, commented: “Ever since India re-engaged in dialogue over two years ago, significant headway has been made on various issues - principally trade and investment.” He added: “ amidst the constant inflow of disturbing news from the Af-Pak theatre, we have one positive to point to: the thaw in India-Pakistan relations.”

The Dawn editorial was cautious over the outcome: “While welcome news, much will depend on the vigour and sincerity with which the new visa arrangements are implemented: even the most high-minded of ideas have often failed the implementation test when it comes to these two countries...”

The improved relations and the agreement are a pointer to the realisation of the importance of interdependence in the present global context, especially for Pakistan.

Along with the desire of the people of the two countries for ease in visa norms, Pakistan was near-desperate to ensure better relations with its neighbour as globally Pakistan is seen as a country getting increasingly isolated for harbouring terror and nursing a weak economy after it was given a cold shoulder by the US. Pakistan’s  economic situation has been worsening by the day, coupled with a weak government and internal troubles portending a bleak future. Pakistan will face elections early next year and no one is expecting a strong government being put in place.

The internal weakness and limited diplomatic options are seen as the factors primarily responsible for Islamabad deciding to sign the agreement. The final green signal for signing of visa treaty came from the all-powerful army, a former Indian diplomat observed. (Although the draft was ready in May, Pakistan had shied away from inking the pact until now)

Boost people-to-people contact

The weekend visit of external affairs minister S M Krishna who committed India to the historic visa pact, capped a year of talks on various fronts at the official level. It also marked the end of the second round of talks and the beginning of the third. The process, though slow, has been certain and showed the genuine resolve of the two countries to boost people-to-people contact and increased trade.

Krishna’s Pakistan counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar has advocated that “we will not be held hostage to history.” Islamabad almost appeared to have given up on the demand for India addressing the Kashmir issue. Until a few years ago, Pakistan, as part of the then composite dialogue, was demanding solution to Kashmir problem as a pre-condition to addressing other issues. Now, Islamabad seemed to have agreed to India’s viewpoint to deal with the long-pending economic ties, and take up other knotty issues later, as Krishna underlined as a ‘step-by-step’ approach.

New Delhi’s push for economic ties without linking it to its demand of bringing to justice the perpetrators of Mumbai carnage did raise a few eyebrows, although it maintained that Mumbai remained the core concern for India.

However, India still wants progress on this issue if the visit of prime minister Manmohan Singh to Pakistan is to happen. Pakistan’s political parties without exception are demanding that Singh visit their country at the earliest. The Pak establishment wants Singh to visit in November around the time of birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.

There is another reason why the Pakistan People’s Party-led government, wants Singh to visit their country. The PPP will be in power only till early December after which an interim government will take over to oversee the elections. President Asif Ali Zardari, who visited India in April, wants Singh to make the trip before the PPP government goes. A Singh visit is expected to boost PPP’s prospects, now deemed dim, in the elections.

However, Krishna is said to have made it clear during his talks that there is no way Singh will visit Pakistan unless it has something concrete to show on the terror/Mumbai front.

The Indian establishment does not want Singh to return empty-handed from his first-ever visit to Pakistan specially when there is no possibility of a big ticket announcement taking place during his visit.

Also, India does not want Pak to parade competitive victimhood, that the country was itself under terror attack. Thus, Singh may not be able to emulate his predecessor A B Vajpayee, who visited Pakistan twice in six years, despite the bilateral ties being at a low ebb. Still, Krishna and Singh have initiated steps that no government in the past was able to take.

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