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Calcutta solace for Kabul

Kabul, Sept. 26: Welcome to the capital of one of the most unstable countries in the world , joked a businessman on the chartered flight taking India’s jumbo business delegation to war-ravaged Afghanistan.

What he forgot to add was welcome also to a city, where the shooting might have ended but where guests at the only star hotel here are frisked before being let in. Where citizenry have to pass through check points manned by three groups of armed personnel — Kabul police, the Afghan army and an International peace keeping force. Where rumours are often facts and facts often rumours.

Fact had it that Afghan president Hamid Karzai would be on hand to greet the Indian business leaders, led by foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, SRF chief Arun Bharat Ram, Godrej Group’s Adi Godrej and Nicco’s Rajive Kaul. The event was the inauguration of a ‘Made in India’ show the Confederation of Indian Industry was launching at the very spot Karzai had held his Loya Jirga a few months ago.

Rumour at the Intercontinental hotel had it that Karzai was not coming for the show as he was scared of yet another assassination attempt on him and had instead asked his deputy and defence minister Marshal Mohammed Qasim Fahim to take over at the Indian jumboree.

Rumour had it right.

Karzai was not stepping out of his office that day. Though a Pashtoon in an overwhelmingly Pashtoon city, the President is jittery. Tribal rivalries as well as rivalries between different powers interested in the landlocked nation meant he was a ready target for terror attacks.

Even Pashtoons who should have been ready to rally behind their India-educated, US-supported President may not be ready to do so. For, many feel that he has not done enough for the Pashtoon cause.

Fahim, a favourite with the Iranian and Indian establishments, swept in with a triple layer of security into a “security-sanitised” exhibition ground not really open to the normal Afghan, to promise “100 per cent security to any Indians who come here to trade or to invest”.

But Fahim’s guarantee amid the tensions and suspicions which have gripped the city was hardly incentive enough for India’s business leaders.

Most had come on fishing trips to see what contacts they could build in a nation which once straddled India’s trade routes to the West and was the most important land port for the subcontinent.

The only Indian brave enough to agree to set up shop was a businessman from Calcutta. Devendra Kumar Garg of the Camac Street-based Kamrup Industrial Gases tied up for a Rs 2-crore venture to produce industrial gases.

But others decided to do a Karzai on Afghanistan.

Said Narendra Berlia, a Calcutta-based tea merchant: “I came along to check out whether they will still buy our teas and at what price and, even more important, who will do it.”

Afghanistan does buy tea and at considerable price, but the trade is now mostly controlled by middlemen based in Dubai and Pakistan. The strong, but difficult to get, Kangra tea remains a hot favourite among discerning Kabuliwallahs. But many who had dealt with Indian tea merchants had disappeared.

An Indian businessman said: “There could be business. But to be truthful, we really did not make any great contacts. The luncheon circuit did not throw up any Afghan businessman with whom we could do business.”

CII’s former president Subodh Bhargava said what Indians could hope to get were sub-contractors’ roles in the multi-million reconstruction effort the West was sponsoring.

Cold comfort for India’s policy makers at South Block. The Indian foreign ministry, which is battling for diplomatic space in Kabul, had hoped that the flag-waving delegation would help it jockey itself into a leading position. However, Indian officials did not forget to point out that Iran would get to kickstart its exhibition only next month and that the Pakistanis had been denied permission to do anything at all.

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