Normalising trade with India in Pak interest: Salman Bashir Interview with Pakistan High Commissioner to India

Founder Editor Tazeen Akhtar..

Nayanima Basu / New Delhi Jan 04, 2013, -With the deadline of December 2012 for Pakistan to grant the most favoured nation (MFN) status to India already over, there may be doubts whether the neighbouring country is serious about it. Pakistan High Commissioner to India Salman Bashir tells Nayanima Basu his country is not reluctant to grant MFN status to India. The key to normalise trading relations with India, according to him, is implementation of the decisions already taken by both governments. Edited excerpts:

Do you think trade normalisation between India and Pakistan will be as effective as it is perceived to be?

Trade and economic cooperation is an important strand in our common effort to improve the relations between our countries. I think there is generally a recognition on both sides that economic and trade cooperation is an important track and I must say this track has witnessed certain good developments in the recent months. As far as Pakistan is concerned, decisions have been taken by our government to normalise trading relations with India. There are a lot of things that ensued from this in the sense of putting the whole framework together from moving to the negative list from the positive list, and phasing out the negative list is part of that sequence.

Is Pakistan truly eager to do business with India?

Pakistan’s industry is also very eager to do business here. We need to have a shared vision. We need to have a necessary political will to work towards that vision. The most important among all this is the possibility of opening up banking channels for greater and easier transactions. I believe two Pakistani banks (National Bank of Pakistan and United Bank Ltd) have shown interest in opening branches here. We need to expedite all that. Similarly, I understand some Indian banks are also interested. So clearly there is a will.

As you said, there is clearly a will. Then why is Pakistan reluctant in officially giving MFN status to India? The deadline promised was December 2012.
I do not think we are reluctant. Normalising trade with India is in our national interest, so where is the question of being reluctant? As far as the question of the time frame is concerned, I think I have seen nothing to the contrary. Pakistan takes its decisions seriously. The point is that after due deliberations, this decision of normalising trade has taken place. What is more important is being able to ensure that there is requisite change of attitude so that at least the agreements that have been reached could be implemented. This is absolutely the key. Because, in the absence of implementation, there is certain level of frustration that builds up, and I hope that will not be the case.

But will you be able to identify a time frame ?

I think it is the commerce ministry’s domain, so therefore, I would not like to confirm or negate anything, but as I said, I have seen nothing to the contrary. I know there had been speculations that Pakistan is delaying. There may be a delay or there may not be a delay, but the essential point is that we have taken the steps after due considerations to normalise trading relation and that will happen.

When Pakistan introduced the negative list, it kept some of the main items in the list which are of interest to India such as textiles. Is the Pakistani industry scared that Indian goods will flood its markets?

Well, there could be two views on this. One is that more trade is essentially beneficial for the economy as a whole and the other viewpoint is that of a protectionist mindset. So I think we need to keep a balance between the two. Of course, our strength is in the textiles and that is one area where we would seek to benefit from the Indian market. Then there is the technical side of tariff lines and tariff rates, which are among the other things that matter.

When do you plan to increase the number of items to be traded through the Attari-Wagah trade route? Is there a possibility to open up a new trading route between the ports of Mumbai and Karachi?

New land routes can be considered. But what is important is to see how we can improve the existing infrastructure on the Wagah-Attari route. There are still delays in the check-posts. There are other practical problems. Well, I also believe there is no such thing as a perfect situation. But I know both sides are trying to improve the situation and there could be further improvements. So I think we will certainly like to see more being done over a period of time to facilitate trade.

Now that both sides have relaxed the visa regime for the businessmen of both countries, when will the same happen for the common man? Do you not think that will help a lot in changing perceptions?

We are doing the most to facilitate visas. We are rather prompt in issuing visas. Our acceptance rate is very high for visa applications. The timeline is usually 24 hours. We are trying to facilitate as much as we can. We feel that greater interaction is helpful. It’s also helpful because hopefully it will start impacting the overall perception about Pakistan.

India has finally allowed investments from Pakistan. Do you feel that will now put an end to informal trade?

To single out Pakistan on the foreign direct investment (FDI) list was somewhat not very elegant. Now that it has been done away with, we need to perhaps understand a little bit more on what is meant by investment through the government route. It’s no big secret that informal trade was happening. I think that will be controlled to a large extent now.

How far will the recent India-Pakistan cricket match help in normalising relations and warming up ties?

I believe cricket helps a lot. I think this is something that people of this part of the world are passionate about. So I am quite sure that this match will contribute in creating more warmth and in improving the atmospherics, which is certainly the intention. A lot of meaningful cultural contacts are taking place. The change has to take place in terms of perception about each other.

Do you see a transformational change in Pakistan’s politics with the entry of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari?

A generational change is inevitable. I have great faith in younger people. Times have changed and their view of the world is totally different from the previous generation. This is a universal phenomenon.