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Ring of achhe din in Pakistan trade talks

Khurram Dastgir Khan

New Delhi, June 17: Pakistan’s commerce minister Engineer Khurram Dastgir Khan will visit India in early September for key trade talks, in the first minister-level visit by either side after Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif met here last month.

Khan’s visit is critical because both nations are counting on building trade ties to bolster goodwill on both sides of the border necessary for the political leadership in India and Pakistan to domestically sell any negotiations on more contentious diplomatic differences.

The Pakistan commerce minister will hold talks with his Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman, and will be accompanied by 100 major business leaders who will attend an India-Pakistan business summit, senior diplomats have told The Telegraph.

The trade talks will coincide with an exhibition of Pakistani designers, artistes and interior decorators called Aalishan Pakistan, which was held once before in New Delhi in 2012.

“I have no hesitation in saying that achhe din aane wale hain (good days are coming),” Pakistan high commissioner to India Abdul Basit said today, quoting the now-famous campaign punch-line used by Modi and the BJP in the recent elections that brought them to power.

Khan’s visit will be critical, officials from both nations said, because trade has emerged a key irritant in ties over the past few months.

India declared most favoured nation status for Pakistan — a tag that allows Pakistan greater access to India’s markets — in 1996, and Sharif had promised to reciprocate the step when he returned to power in 2013. But sandwiched between tensions along the border first and protectionist sentiments in Pakistan later, Islamabad has so far not delivered on its promise.

It will need to, before the countries can seriously hope to delve into substantive talks on niggles like the future of the Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek, senior Indian officials said.

Even under Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh — criticised by the BJP and Modi for being “soft” on Pakistan — the foreign policy establishment was clear that Pakistan must keep its trade promise before deeper talks could proceed.

“That situation stays,” an Indian official here said. “If we can’t trust our neighbour to keep its promise, there’s little scope for meaningful talks on more complex issues.”

But Pakistan today indicated it is as keen as India to use trade as a bridge towards talks on more contentious subjects.

S.M. Muneer, the chief executive officer of the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP) — the external trade diplomacy arm of the Pakistan government — visited New Delhi today and met commerce minister Sitharaman.

“There is new momentum in India-Pakistan ties after the meeting of our two Prime Ministers, and we hope to continue that,” Muneer said after his meeting with Sitharaman.

Sharif had joined other leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation nations in attending the swearing-in ceremony of Modi and key members of his cabinet on May 26, and the two Prime Ministers had their first official meeting here the next day. Sharif also invited Modi to visit Pakistan — but no dates have been discussed by the two nations yet.