New Delhi, Sept. 20: The way to Islamabad, it seems, lies through Kathmandu — at least as far as next year’s Saarc summit is concerned.
A crucial meeting of Saarc officials in the Nepalese capital next month appears to hold the key to the fate of the regional summit in Islamabad as well as the future of India-Pakistan relations.
The two-day meeting, slated for October 14 and 15, will see attempts at preparing the groundwork for the South Asian Free Trade Agreement. But before that, Islamabad is scheduled to reduce the number of items from India on its “negative list” to indicate its willingness to scale down trade barriers with Delhi.
If progress on the trade front is stalled, relations between the neighbours could be further strained and lead to a situation in which the summit may have to be called off.
Saarc foreign ministers are scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next week. But the finer points of important issues that could come up at the Saarc summit have been left for the Kathmandu meet. Indian and Pakistani officials are scheduled to exchange lists that can lead to progress in both the South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement and the South Asian Free Trade Agreement— two items crucial to the regional summit.
The Kathmandu session comes in the wake of strong, critical statements that have emanated from both Delhi and Islamabad, raising doubts whether the Saarc summit, scheduled to be held between January 4 and 6, will take place. India has agreed to participate in the summit but has also made it clear that for the summit to be meaningful, it is essential for member countries to make significant progress on the trade and economic front.
This means Delhi will want to see if Islamabad keeps its side of the bargain by providing the list of negative items to India and pave the way for progress on both the preferential and free trade agreement.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has accused India of playing “dangerous” games in Pakistan, Kashmir and Afghanistan, which could provoke Pakistani retaliation and raise the spectre of a nuclear conflict. “They must know that we can retaliate in a big way and they should know that,” he told the Toronto Star.