DAWN - Opinion; 14 January, 2004

January 14, 2004


Saarc and after

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

The Saarc summit in Islamabad, the 12th in the 18-year history of the organization, has been termed a seminal event heralding the dawn of a new era in the chequered history of the region and more particularly in the troubled bilateral Indo-Pakistan relationship. Much, perhaps far too much, has been said about the significance of the decisions made both in the regional forum and in the bilateral negotiations and discussions between India and Pakistan.

While there is agreement on the immense significance of the decisions made, there is far less agreement on how these decisions are to be viewed from the Pakistani perspective.

On the one hand there is the view that the decisions made represented a victory for all sides and for the cause of regional peace and harmony. The first view flowed from the fact that the Saarc decisions were a logical continuance of the discussions that had been held at various levels in the Saarc and the independent report on Safta (South Asian Free Trade Area) commissioned by the Saarc secretariat with the agreement of all member states, while the bilateral joint statement was an almost inevitable consequence of the confidence-building measures (CBMs) that the two countries had proposed and agreed upon in the flurry of initiatives taken during the last two months.

In other words, both India and Pakistan had made up their minds to put the rancour and bitterness of the last two years behind them and to seek to put their relations on an even keel as visualized in prime minister Vajpayee's statement of April 18 in Srinagar. It was this shared intent rather than the actual terminology of the Saarc decisions or the joint statement that mattered.

In the second view, both India and Pakistan were subject to domestic, regional and international pressures to reach agreements that would give regional cooperation a chance to move ahead and to arrive at some bilateral understanding which would prevent the resurgence of the sort of tension that had made South Asia an area of international concern for the last two years. Pakistan, however, was overly eager to have a successful summit and to give substantial bilateral content to Vajpayee's visit to Pakistan.

Taking advantage of this ill-concealed enthusiasm India played hard to get. It refused till the last minute to confirm that Vajpayee would be having bilateral meetings with president Musharraf and prime minister Jamali and finally made the request for these meetings only after it had satisfied itself in behind-the-scene meetings that its views if not demands would be fully met. In other words Pakistan got the worst of the bargain because it did not negotiate well enough.

There is no doubt that there was eagerness on Pakistan's part. There is no doubt also that, from the perspective of its domestic situation and the "international community's counselling", Pakistan may have felt a greater need for arriving at agreements. At the same time there should not be any doubt that for the Indians too the Saarc summit and the bilateral meeting were important. In the ultimate analysis what matters is whether there is anything in the agreements reached which suggests that one side or the other has sacrificed a fundamental interest or gone beyond offering the sort of compromise solutions that are the very essence of negotiations. So far there is nothing that would support the thesis that Pakistan has given away much and received nothing in return.

Of the agreements reached at the Saarc summit there is no doubt that the most fundamental was the agreement on Safta. This agreement which will come into force in January 2006, after the completion of ratification by all the countries, requires that tariffs be reduced on intra-regional trade to between 0-5 per cent, within seven years of the coming into force, by the developed members of Saarc, i.e., India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and within 10 years by the less developed members i.e., Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives. It permits each member state to draw up a list of sensitive items on which tariffs will not be reduced and to inform the other members about this list before the date on which the treaty comes into force.

If there was a problem with the finalization of this agreement it arose primarily from the fact that Bangladesh wanted concessions to be made to the less developed members of the same sort as were offered to them in other international or regional organizations. Once the nature of these concessions had been agreed upon there was no obstacle to its finalization.

Pakistan's industrialists who were closely associated with the formulation of Pakistan's negotiating strategy were apparently satisfied that they were in a position to compete with Indian products and that in areas where they were not competitive the "exemption list" would safeguard their interests. Many of them believed that securing tariff-free access to the Indian market in areas where Pakistan enjoyed or could develop a competitive advantage would give them the sort of "economies of scale" which they were denied in the comparatively smaller Pakistani economy. I am inclined to share this view.

There are three points that need to be noted in the context of this agreement. First, Safta has not addressed the question of Pakistan's refusal to accord to India the MFN (most favoured nation) treatment to which it believes it is entitled under the WTO regulations. This of course is a question that will remain on the Indo-Pakistan bilateral agenda as will be the question of the items that each country chooses to place on its "exemption list".

SAFTA, as currently conceived, is therefore a statement of political intent. Legally each country can, if it is willing to pay the political price continue to place restrictions on trade and Pakistan can continue to deny India MFN.

Second, we must recognize that in many, even most areas, the economies of the region are competitive rather than complimentary and that this imposes a limit on the natural growth that will take place in trade even after tariffs are reduced. If further growth is to be induced deliberate decisions on a division of labour will have to be made by the member countries.

Today in Europe 63 per cent of the EU countries' foreign trade is with each other. This has not happened only because the economies are genuinely complimentary to this extent but because government policies have encouraged the private sector through fiscal and other incentives to maximize the division of labour.

In our own case I visualize that, even after Safta comes into force in 2006 and tariffs are reduced to 0-5 per cent by 2013, it will take a decade or more for the intra-regional trade to become a significant percentage of total trade. If such policies are formulated, and that would depend on the political climate, trade could grow much more rapidly to the benefit of all the regional countries.

One area in which such division of labour could be looked at immediately is "energy". Pakistan's installed thermal units potentially can produce much more than Pakistan can itself consume in the near future. Rather than setting up its own expensive units India could import electricity from Pakistan for its industries in Punjab and Haryana belt.

Third, from Pakistan's perspective, major benefits would flow if the intent of Safta was seen as being not only to increase intra-regional trade but also to actively encourage inter-regional trade. Pakistan could then derive full benefit from its "strategic location" and its position as the bridge between South Asia on the one hand and Central and West Asia on the other.

Prime Minister Jamali proposed, in his Saarc address, the commissioning of a study on creating a South Asia "energy ring" encompassing hydro and thermal capacities, as well as trans-regional oil and gas pipelines. This is really a euphemism for what is visualized - the use of Pakistani or Pakistani and Afghan transit routes to bring energy supplies from Iran and the Gulf countries on one side and from Central Asia on the other to the burgeoning Indian energy market through the overland route.

India and Iran may talk of creating special transit routes for Indian goods to reach the Afghan and Central Asian markets but it is clear that these are "political" rather than "economic" decisions. They pander to the Iranian desire to be recognized as the only logical transit route for Central Asian trade and to the Indian desire to maintain links with Afghanistan even if the logical Pakistani route was not available.

The most urgent need if the potential of inter-regional trade is to be realized is the restoration of stability in Afghanistan. India and Pakistan have a common interest in Afghan stability. For Pakistan that interest is both political - the long common border and the Pushtun presence on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border - and economic-access to Central Asian markets.

India's political interest in Afghanistan is only peripheral. It maintains, and this is being encouraged by certain elements in the international community, that as the pre-eminent power of South Asia India has a right to perceive and pursue political interests in Afghanistan but the truth is that politically Afghanistan is important to India only in so far as its influence there can be used to discomfit Pakistan.

The economic interest, however, is very real. Once the problems with Pakistan are settled, transit through Pakistan and a stable Afghanistan will give India the most economic access to the energy resources it so desperately needs and access to the currently limited but potentially rich markets of Central Asia for its products.. The former relate not only to gas from Turkmenistan - though this is currently the most obvious - but also potentially oil from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and hydel power generated in the Kyrghyz and Tajik republics.

For far too long India and Pakistan, obsessed with their political differences and with questions of security, have ignored the obvious economic benefits that cooperation could bring. If the signing of SAFTA reflects a break with this kind of thinking then this "freer" trade agreement must go beyond and think of "freer transit". The writer is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan.

Power of the patwari

By Hafizur Rahman

The other day there were two letters in an Urdu daily, both from small landowners in Punjab, describing how they had suffered in different ways at the hands of greedy and unscrupulous patwaris. They failed to understand why so much power should vest in a petty official through the exercise of personal whim in the matter of land records.

There have been many commissions for administrative reforms in Pakistan but none of them, so far as my information goes, bothered to cut the patwari down to size, something inconceivable nowadays when the federal and provincial governments claim that everything is being computerized.

The power of the patwari lies in the fact that he is the custodian of the revenue record of his circle. When I say custodian I mean that not only is he the keeper of the record but also the only one who fully comprehends it. This may sound unbelievable but it's true. The tehsildar or naib tehsildar is considered highly talented who can beat the patwari at this comprehension, while the deputy commissioner (or whoever has replaced him) who could do so is still to be born. So they used to say in Punjab.

That is why the patwari is the most powerful official in the villages where his writ runs. He has almost life and death control over variations in the record that he can manipulate, to the advantage or loss of a landowner or tenant. Both are at his mercy. No wonder the old woman whom a young deputy commissioner had done an out-of-the-way favour gave him the benediction, "Son, may God make you a patwari!"

One of the above-mentioned correspondents said in his letter that the patwari is in fact the DC of his area and an integral part of the frame of administration left by the British whose four pillars are this functionary, the tehsildar, the thanedar and the loyal-to-the-government zamindar. That is why everything revolves around him and this is where corruption starts - tremendous authority and meagre salary.

The patwari is in Grade-5, which is the pay scale of a junior clerk. The educational qualification required of him is matriculation. When selected for the post he attends patwar school for two years, and, on appointment, becomes the kingpin of the revenue system. Much is made of the unquestioned dominion of the feudal lord in the system that is basically agricultural, but you will never see a patwari bowing and scraping before him. It is always the latter who goes to the patwari when he wants the system to be manipulated for his own benefit. You have to live in a village to get the feel of the power grid.

It is the same with the officer, whatever his authority in the government and his status in the bureaucracy. Not so long ago, a young deputy commissioner, the son of an old friend, was worrying about a problem of his village land that had to be rectified by the patwari. I asked him why he didn't call the man over and speak to him. "No, Uncle," he replied, "I must go to him the first time. It's like paying homage. Later he can come if I send for him."

There have been persistent demands for reforms to revamp the whole system. The World Bank too recommended a sweeping change in a report published a few years ago after examining and assessing Pakistan's entire government setup. Among other things it called for radical decentralization in order to give it a more public- friendly character, removal of a top-heavy management, and ensuring greater efficiency in offices dealing directly with the people. I believe the recent devolution was partly a result of that report.

But the evolution has not touched the patwari. The case of his powers is unique. They may not find a match anywhere else in the world. It is a small official exercising enormous authority by virtue of his specialized knowledge of an intricate system of land revenue. I don't think routine kind of reforms can find a replacement for him, and I don't think the World Bank study touched the nature of his job at all. I am sure the great experts of the Bank would go into a spin if they were ever confronted by the patwari's books and ledgers. It's a different language altogether.

I don't come from a village, nor do I own any agricultural land. I have thus never had the opportunity to deal with a patwari. But I have been hearing of his extraordinary position in the rural setup for the last fifty-five years. As you know, pirs have a great hold over the mass of our people - even over those who are highly educated and otherwise enlightened. But in the people's book the patwari takes precedence over the spiritual mentor. It is an apt illustration of the Punjabi adage, "The fist is nearer than God."

In the days of One Unit (from October 1955 to July 1970) at one stage Nawab Muzaffar Ali Qizilbash of Lahore was chief minister of West Pakistan, probably after Dr Khan Sahib's assassination. During a debate on the land revenue system I have heard him tell the provincial assembly that he paid regular tribute in the form of money to his patwari "to safeguard his agricultural interest".

And so did the formidable Nawab of Kalabagh, governor of West Pakistan, and "monarch of all he surveyed". The highest officers of the realm trembled in their shoes in his presence, but so far as his patwari was concerned, it was the Nawab who paid obeisance to that humble official. It is a striking and bizarre feature of our administrative system that he always endeavoured to keep his patwari and the thanedar of Kalabagh police station satisfied and happy. We used to hear that their families were fed from the feudal kitchen three times a day. Maybe the practice is still followed by the Nawab's successors because things haven't changed.

The patwari is a fascinating institution. Many people have written about Punjab's land tenure system and allied matters, Sir Malcolm Darling among them. But I don't think anyone has talked about those facets of the patwari's duties that invest him with that stranglehold over the rural society. He is truly the one man around whom the rural economy revolves. Isn't this strange in these modern times?

He stooped to conquer

By F. S. Aijazuddin

Mr vajpayee will not visit Pakistan again. He has no further need to, for he has accomplished so far as Pakistan is concerned all that he had set out to do in his political career, as a BJP leader, as India's foreign minister and now as its prime minister.

His first visit to this part of the subcontinent (then undivided) was when he was still a student. He travelled like any young, inquisitive sightseer, stopping in Lahore to stroll through its famous Anarkali bazaar, and then passing through the orderly cantonment town of Rawalpindi, to reach the northern extremity of the Khyber Pass.

He came again after 1947 to the same part of the subcontinent but to a different country. He too was the same man but travelling in a different capacity, on these occasions as the official representative of his country, India. It took him almost forty-two years though to make the public admission before an audience at Government House, Lahore, in 1999, that no matter how much he may have regretted the division of the subcontinent, Pakistan in his eyes was and would remain a separate country. Although on that occasion he did not say so in as many words (Mr Vajpayee is a man of few, measured words and even more eloquent silences), by implication he conceded that his party's slogan 'Akhand Bharat' was now as obsolete a political credo in India as the UN resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir were to Pakistan.

Having made that significant concession, one can imagine his personal disappointment at finding that Pakistan's new leadership headed by President General Pervez Musharraf should not have reciprocated, before and after Agra. One can only admire therefore Vajpayee's courage and tenacity in agreeing to travel to Islamabad - a barren hillside when he saw it as a student. He came in a final attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of previous defeats.

Mr Vajpayee's demeanour after his arrival on January 3 suggested that, given a personal choice, he would have preferred not to have travelled to Islamabad at all, and if having been made to, he would have preferred not to meet the cause of his heartburn, President Musharraf. For example, during the interview that he gave to a female Pakistani journalist and aired on PTV, he spoke ironically of President Musharraf as a great 'neta' or leader, and when asked whether he would be meeting him replied that he had already met Musharraf in Lahore. It was a subtle rapier-like thrust at the COAS who had declined to salute him in public at Wagah border, and then stabbed him in the back with Kargil.

Leaders though often find themselves led by circumstance, prisoners of their own state policies, and prime minister Vajpayee can be no exception. Being in Islamabad, he had to be part of the delegation of Saarc members when together they formally called on President Musharraf on the evening of January 3. The photographs of the occasion reveal his unease. President Musharraf sat with the two ladies - President Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh - on either side. Vajpayee was seated a chair away from Musharraf, with hands crossed in his lap, avoiding eye contact with the Pakistani president.

Gradually over the next two days, his tension appeared to ease. On January 4, he met his Pakistani counterpart Prime Minister Jamali in a one-to-one closed-door session, at which even their foreign ministers were excluded. By the evening his hosts were wondering whether this was an augury for a meeting between him and Musharraf. That night at a reception given by the Indian High Commissioner at which he had invited a genealogy of foreign ministers and foreign secretaries (both former and present), the talk was whether they would be a meeting, and if so when.

Those in the know already knew, for they had been preparing the ground secretly for days. It came as no surprise to them to learn that on the following day, January 5, president Musharraf and prime minister Vajpayee met formally. Like any such nuptials in the subcontinent, this meeting did not have the intimacy of a one-to-one contact. It was not private, for it was not intended to be. The two principals were accompanied by their senior advisers and ministers, whose presence ensured that Islamabad would not become another Tashkent, Shimla or Agra, a coat of convenience to be worn or taken off at will.

The bland wording of the joint statement itself issued by the two sides suggested that it had been kneaded by many hands over a period of many days earlier, and presented pre-baked by the two sides after their bilateral meeting on January 5. The Joint Statement made the new maxims clear: core issues had lost their centrality, and dialogues had to be composite ones. Most significantly, War-War had been replaced by Jaw-Jaw.

It was a major shift by both, considering the gulf that had separated them. For Mr Vajpayee, the Islamabad yatra and its byproduct the Joint Statement will be his personal legacy - like Julius Caesar's gifts to the Romans in his will - to future generations of Indians and Pakistanis on either side of the border he may still deplore privately but has learned to accept in public.

As prime minister Vajpayee flew over Islamabad on his way back home, it is possible that as he looked out of his window, he might not have been thinking so much about the city below, as about the new capital ahead, the capital of a democratic country whose political leadership he had influenced voicelessly during his visit.

On January 4, 2004, before the banquet given by the president of Pakistan, prime minister Vajpayee met at a reception given by the Indian High Commissioner Shankar Menon, a number of senators, MNAs and political leaders including Begum Nasim Wali Khan (the daughter-in-law of the Frontier Gandhi Bacha Khan), Asfandiyar Wali Khan and a clutch of Pathan notables. Each met and spoke to him briefly, without fear of retribution.

Much had changed since November 1971, when Mr Vajpayee's predecessor Mrs Indira Gandhi told President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office that after receiving independence 'Pakistan proceeded to imprison or exile leaders of the independence movement [i.e. Bachha Khan]. Balochistan, as well as the provinces along the northwest frontier, has a strong desire for greater autonomy.' She continued somewhat condescendingly, 'India, on the other hand, has always reflected a degree of forbearance toward its own separatist elements.'

Prime minister Vajpayee has now returned to those 'separatist elements' within his own country. He does so more confident for having obtained an implicit acknowledgment from the President of Pakistan that Pakistan has been aiding such elements, and a commitment from General Musharraf as the chief of army staff that he 'will not permit any territory under Pakistan's control to be used to support terrorism in any manner.' By definition, that personal commitment must extend to any and every agency under (and outside?) his control.

The strength or fragility of the joint statement issued by Pakistan and India in Islamabad will be tested in the next few months. Both sets of Kashmiris have to reconcile to the fate decided for them at Islamabad. In other spheres, the grid lines of diplomatic intention have to deepen into channels of practical bilateral cooperation. The distance to be covered was apparent in the full-page advertisement taken out on January 4 in a Pakistani daily newspaper, advocating the establishment of a South Asian Economic Union.

It was signed by the chambers of commerce of five Saarc countries and the Confederation of Indian Industry. Pakistan was represented neither by its Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry nor by any local chapter. Instead, Pakistan's commitment came from the chairman of a business forum. The Pakistani business community remained reticent. The idea advocated in the advertisement of an economic union, like that of a common currency for the area, had obviously come too soon and therefore suffered the fate of all premature prophecies.

From now on, whatever may be the speed of Indo-Pakistan dialogues or disruptive provocations, prime minister Vajpayee's concern will not be Pakistan. He has begun a dialogue that he will leave to other voices to continue for him, and after him.

When he was asked during that TV interview if he would recite some of his poetry for Pakistani viewers, he thwarted the ingratiating request with the retort that 'politics and poetry do not go well together'. Flexibility and Diplomacy do go together and often have to. Only leaders with both eyes on history know that even 'netas' on occasions have to stoop to conquer.