Nepali Times Asian Paints
Southasia Beat
The return of romance


The New Delhi media was breathless in its coverage of the India-Pakistan Cricket Summit, but it started inauspiciously enough when the pilot of the PIA Airbus got the Indian tricolour downside up as he came in to the apron at Jaipur airport.

Television reporters barely into adulthood (they pick them young, the Indian channels) were wondering whether a president known for his ambush diplomacy was not sending a message even before he deplaned. Was the visit doomed even before the blessings of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti had been received at Ajmer Sharif?

But no, it was an unremarkable mistake promptly corrected and the rest of the visit went swimmingly. General Musharraf received blanket coverage in the Delhi dailies, with only the RSS-favouring columnist Tarun Vijay seeming to raise a diffident finger of skepticism in the Chandigarh Pioneer.

'Lahore' and 'Kargil' were not even in the memory bank and even 'Agra' and that vainglorious televised meeting with Indian editors seemed to have been forgiven. Unlike the handlers of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the aides to Manmohan Singh were obviously taking no risks with a general who likes to make unscripted handshakes ('Kathmandu') and dyes his hair just right ('New Delhi').

With Gen Musharraf playing by the rules and Indian officials clear about what they wanted, everything went just right. In fact, the bhai-bhai vibes are so too-good-to-be-true that it had one worried about how to make this trend stick. The people-to-people contact so heroically promoted by the members of the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy over years of non-stop cynicism has finally borne a little fruit. It must now be allowed to ripen, to the full extent that the visa regime is flung open for all Indians and Pakistanis, with restrictions only to prevent mass migration from one side to the other.

The possibilities of a Southasian peace opened by human contact can't be sustained unless there is rapid movement to spark trade, commerce and economic integration. While New Delhi was still acting host to the president general, this columnist flew over the desert to Karachi. The purpose was to understand what the businessmen of this commercial hub thought of the India-Pakistan rapproachment and possible future economic linkages. Would they be wary of an Indian swamping, or were they enthusiastic entrepreneurs hoping to reap the advantage?

PIA Flight 273 was full of exuberant Pakistanis returning from the resounding victory of the One Day International, their excitement enhanced by the fact that cricketer Shahid Afridi was ensconced in the executive class section up front, feigning sleep to keep off excited autograph seekers. A gaggle of young Anglophone socialites seemed to have been doing their own people-to-people contacting the night before. "My, the parties in Delhi! . did you see those farmhouses in Gurgaon? . Let me sleep, I was dancing all night."

In Karachi, the sober people in business were indeed looking forward to what the future might bring. A cotton producer was hoping for across-the-border trade of the white fluff, so that his customers in 'Eastern Punjab' did not have to be supplied from the ginning factory in 'Western Punjab' by going through the port in Karachi, down to Bombay by ship and up to Amritsar by rail. "This makes no sense, and how long will we keep at this?"

A garment exporter said he was willing to allow the law of comparative advantages work in the India-Pakistan sphere, even if his industry suffered somewhat though he did not expect it to. "If we are willing to be swamped by cheap Chinese goods, what could be so bad about Indian imports?" said a broker. A former chief of the Export Promotion Bureau believed that the blessings of regional trade would raise the entire ship of Southasia. An entrepreneur with heavy investment in port infrastructure believed that "things have gone so far ahead that the hawks on both sides will not be able to derail this peace train".

Back at Rashtrapati Bhawan, President of India Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was giving the visiting head of state a PowerPoint presentation on rural development. When the subject turned to bilateral relations, his advice to Gen Musharraf was: "Place all CBMs in one incubator or good basket and then watch the eggs nurture in this basket of goodwill." What Dr Kalam probably meant to say through the mixup of metaphors was probably this: "Do not put all your eggs in one basket, general. People-to-people contact is only one confidence-building measure, which has to be followed fast and furiously with the creation of new economic facts on the ground." That at least is what I would have said, and the Karachi traders would have agreed.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)