President Asif Ali Zardari is visiting Ajmer to pay respects at the shrine of Sufi saint Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti.
He is, however, also likely to seek the saint’s blessings for Pakistan-India bilateral trade because sources say that would be the core issue at his luncheon with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Although the visit is termed ‘private,’ it will be the first visit by a Pakistani head of state to India since 2005.
According to the official schedule, the president will have lunch with Singh and then head to the shrine in Ajmer. While the agenda for the luncheon has been kept open, sources say the two leaders are likely to talk trade.
“The two leaders will be having discussion over some issues,” said the foreign office without further elaboration.
Indian diplomats based in Islamabad were equally elusive. “We have not set any agenda for the meeting,” a diplomat said.
But sources say President Zardari and Prime Minister Singh are likely to finalise the date of implementation of the Most- Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India.
The two leaders will provide their assent to a technical draft prepared and agreed upon earlier by commerce ministers of both countries and discuss and resolve political non-tariff barriers (NTB), sources told The Express Tribune.
While India had granted the MFN status to Pakistan in 1996, implying no restrictions to bilateral trade, Pakistan decided in November 2011 to reciprocate the gesture.
The countries have decided to lower the existing barriers step-wise until their complete abolition by December 2012.
Draft agreed upon
Commerce Minister Makhdoom Amin Fahim and his Indian counterpart Anand Sharma almost finalised the draft of the agreement during their last meeting, sources said.
The draft already agreed upon includes Pakistan’s assent, in principle, to grant the MFN status to India and a finalised negative list of non-tradeable items which will be phased out by the year’s end. It also includes NTBs which India will withdraw in the meanwhile.
While the trade and commerce ministries have almost finalised the technical NTBs, political barriers have been left for discussions between Zardari and Singh.
The two leaders will give a go-ahead to that draft and finalise the date of announcement of the implementation of the agreement, sources said, adding that they will also discuss and add their political input in the draft with the support of interior and foreign ministries.
The new suggestions will be incorporated in the draft by commerce ministers at their upcoming meeting scheduled for April 12 and 13, sources said.
After the meeting of commerce ministers, the Indian and Pakistani premiers will sign and announce the final agreement.
According to sources, the two leaders will discuss softening of borders and visa relaxation, especially for traders and businessmen, and trade in local currencies.
The added that the president will suggest to Singh that traders are stamped a visa at the border, and that banks from both countries open branches in the other country.
Sources said President Zardari wants to give a ‘breakthrough’ to the people of Pakistan through opening up unhindered trade with India.
Trade between the two countries stands at $2 billion at present but can potentially soar to $10 billion once all barriers are removed with the implementation of MFN status, a federal Cabinet member said while speaking to The Express Tribune.
The president, meanwhile, talked to a delegation of Lahore’s Chamber of Commerce on Saturday and attempted to dispel their reservations that Indian goods will flood Pakistani markets and harm local industry.
According to the Presidency, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will accompany the president to India on a special aircraft.
On the eve of his visit, the president also met with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on Saturday evening. Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and the interior minister also attended the meeting. (WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT BY QAMAR ZAMAN IN ISLAMABAD)
Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2012.