|Rediff India Abroad Home | All the sections|
No cherries at Pak PM's breakfast
November 25, 2004 21:32 IST
The accent betrays his days as a banker in New York. The subject of his opening comments -- the possibilities on trade, South Asia's poor record on human development despite its rich human potential, etc sounds almost like Manmohan Singh.
But beyond the suave exterior and the expansive painting of blue sky possibilities, Shaukat Aziz as Pakistan's prime minister gives away precisely nothing.
In a breakfast session with journalists, lasting the best part of two hours in a New Delhi hotel, Aziz talks of the "embarrassing" level of trade among South Asian countries and expands on the move towards a regional free trade agreement. He also talks of win-win solutions.
But asked why Pakistan does not then give India the routine 'most favoured nation' status, he says this can be done only in response to progress on the Kashmir issue, which holds the key to "sustainable peace".
He pushes hard for the idea of a pipeline that can bring gas from Central and West Asia to India, through Pakistan, but rejects that Indian goods should similarly be allowed to transit through Pakistan to Afghanistan and beyond. That too will depend on progress with regard to the Kashmir issue. Yes, Pakistan has not stopped Afghan goods coming to India via Pakistan, but the reverse flow will not be allowed. In any case, why link such "bells and whistles and trinkets" to the idea of a pipeline?
"I am from the private sector, and I like to get to the heart of the issue." Pakistan is going to build the pipeline anyway; if India does not want to benefit despite needing hydrocarbons that is not going to stop Pakistan. Only, it makes sense to build a bigger pipeline that will feed both markets.
Don't cherry pick issues in the comprehensive dialogue, he says (meaning, don't leave out Kashmir). But he sees no irony in cherry picking himself, in looking for one kind of goods transit but not accepting another.
In short, progress on even the most obvious issues will depend on progress over Kashmir. Don't talk tactics, talk strategies, he says at one point.
Sitting high up in a room that offers a grand view of New Delhi's imperial government-scape, Aziz conveys another message. If you think Pakistan is a failed state, you're going to be disappointed.
When he took office five years ago as finance minister, Pakistan had foreign exchange equal to four weeks' imports; now the reserves equal a year's imports.
"We have just said goodbye to the IMF," he announces. The economy grew 6.4 per cent last year, and will grow even faster this year. "We know what we are doing, we know where we are headed, and we would like to get to 8 per cent growth and with much more foreign investment."
He makes it a point to mention that 85 per cent of Pakistan's banking system is now in the private sector, and two-thirds of the public sector banks that were de-nationalised went to foreigners.
The message is not lost on the Indian audience: we're doing better than you guys when it comes to economic reform. Indeed, Aziz goes a step further and argues that you have to welcome foreign investment with open arms; you won't get anywhere by putting sectoral restrictions and ownership caps. He said he had to work at getting his civil servants to see the logic, but they have.
He evades a blunt question, posed by a former journalist who is now a BJP member of the Rajya Sabha, on Pakistan as the source of cross-border terrorism. And gives a longwinded and evasive response to another blunt question, that if Pakistan is in the vanguard of the war against terror, what exactly is the target of its war on terror? At one point, he says Pakistan believes in nuclear non-proliferation (and don't think of A Q Khan!).
Asked about his government's past dealings with the Taliban, he says you have to deal with the government that is in power. Indeed, he sees Hamid Karzai's victory in Afghanistan's presidential election as a positive development, and Pak-Afghan trade has grown to a billion dollars.
Asked what he intends to discuss with his Indian counterpart, he says these are not transaction visits; the dialogue is a process and any process has its ups and downs. What India needs to do is think out of the box, because the status quo is unacceptable and maintaining stated positions gets nowhere.
It is a performance with no flaws. Every word is well chosen, there is no humming and hawing, and difficult questions are effortlessly sidestepped by taking the answer in another direction and dwelling at length on the subject not asked.
You can imagine most audiences, especially in the West, responding enthusiastically to the prospect of a "moderate, enlightened Islamic state" as spelt out by someone who can be at home in different worlds. But for the audience that Aziz was addressing, there were no cherries on offer in the sumptuous breakfast.
More reports from Delhi
Read about: Assembly Election 2003 | Attack on Parliament