From trade to politics, Krishna's Pakistan visit a dry run for Manmohan Singh

Last Updated: Thu, Sep 13, 2012 03:54 hrs

Mian Mohammed Mansha, the richest man in Pakistan — he owns the Muslim Commercial Bank, the most profitable bank in the country; Adamjee Insurance, the largest insurer; Nishat Cement, the largest cement-maker; two power plants and huge textile mills — was on the lunch-table when External Affairs Minister S M Krishna met Pakistan Punjab’s chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, in Lahore on Sunday.

No Indian leader can afford to skip Lahore on a visit to Pakistan, not only because it is the historical and cultural but also the political heart of the sub-continent. That is why Krishna’s itinerary was studded with visits to the Sufi shrine of Data Durbar, the final resting place of the former Sikh maharaja, Ranjit Singh, as well as to the Minar-i-Pakistan, a tower which commemorates the founding of the country.

But it was at the lunch with Shahbaz Sharif, brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, that the conversation revolved around both politics and economics, said officials with knowledge of the event. The Indian side was keen on getting an assessment of the political situation both in Punjab, where the brothers are in opposition to Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party, as well as in the run up to the general election slated for early 2013.

Certainly, the Krishna visit was a dry run of sorts for the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Pakistan, before elections are held around February-March 2013. Krishna inaugurated a new visa regime with Pakistan’s special advisor on home security, Rehman Malik, the day before, and both sides are said to have held detailed conversations on what Pakistan can do on the Mumbai attacks.

Clearly, the Pakistani army continues to have a significant say on how policy with India must be formulated. Whether it is the matter of Hafiz Saeed, Siachen, Sir Creek or progress on the Mumbai attacks, the Pakistan army will seriously influence the final decision. Still, it is equally true that Zardari’s government is fighting each day to reclaim political space that the army once took for granted. This battle for the mind of Pakistan continues to unfold every hour and every day, even as this article goes to the press.

Punjab is clearly the key. The Sharif brothers know well that if the doors between the two Punjabs are opened even a little bit, the idea of Indian business moving freely across the international boundary will provide a big boost to the province’s prosperity index.

It is for entrepreneurs like Mian Mansha that Category B of the business visa has been created. This allows business people like him, with profits more than Rs 3 million annually, to travel to 10 cities in India on multiple-entries, and without having to undergo the humiliation of police reporting.

At the Shahbaz Sharif lunch, Mansha is said to have expressed interest in opening a branch of his bank in India. Certainly, the RBI is already in talks with the Central Bank of Pakistan, for banks on both sides to expand business. Pakistani cement is already contributing in a significant way to building India’s infrastructure, and Mansha’s Nishat cement is part of that effort. As for textiles, the finance ministry’s notification on the eve of Krishna’s visit to Pakistan knocking out 30 per cent of India’s sensitive list, includes yarn and textiles. This gives people like Mansha an enhanced stake in bilateral prosperity.

Certainly, Krishna’s visit to Pakistan had many lessons for the Indian establishment, not the least of which is that younger and more agile politicians can communicate much better with their audiences. In this age of television, Pakistan’s foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar spun a much better story in the public domain, but what remains to be seen is whether the Pakistani establishment can deliver on what India wants most: Progress on Mumbai’s terror attacks. India hopes that increased trade will give business people a larger stake in the bilateral relationship as will a more open visa regime. The intention is to use both these instruments to generate a certain momentum so as to set the stage to tackle more thorny, political issues. As for people like Mian Mansha, he is more powerful than most people in Pakistan, although as a younger man he ran afoul of Benazir Bhutto’s government. If he is on board the expanding India-Pakistan ties — and his presence on the Shahbaz Sharif table shows his willingness to stay the course — the battle for the mind of Pakistan may already be half won.

More from Sify: