Zardari visit signals slow progress in India-Pakistan ties

  • Published
Pakistani Rangers (in black) and Indian Border Security Force (BSF) personnel (in brown) perform the daily retreat ceremony on the India-Pakistan Border at Wagah - 8 January 2012Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Little trade moves through the Wagah border crossing, despite the huge potential

With Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari making a rare visit to India, the BBC's Delhi correspondent Andrew North looks at the fraught state of relations between the rival neighbours.

Last time it was cricket, now it is religious tourism. The excuse for meeting is one thing that has changed with this weekend's much-heralded tete-a-tete between the Indian prime minister and the Pakistani president.

In 2005 then-President Pervez Musharraf used the cover of an Indian-Pakistani cricket match to hold talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Mr Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani used a World Cup cricket match to meet a year ago.

Now, President Asif Ali Zardari is coming to India for "religious" reasons - to visit a key shrine - but squeezing in a "private" lunch with the prime minister at his Delhi residence.

So sensitive is face-to-face contact for the two nuclear-armed rivals, they are still wary of holding official talks.

But there are hopes this visit could signal a slight thaw in their bitter relationship - at least in economic ties, after President Zardari promised to boost cross-border trade.

Orchestrated patriotism

At the Wagah frontier, it is pretty much business as usual - which means pretty much no business at all.

Phone signals die - both sides ensure there is no network coverage bleeding over.

Neither state allows the others' vehicles to cross - so anything that comes to the border has to be laboriously unloaded and reloaded.

There has been a rise in trade, but at $2.7bn (£1.7bn) it is pitiful for two countries with so many shared needs and 3,000km (1,900 miles) of frontier.

Britain may be long gone and faraway, but India and Pakistan do far more business with their former colonial master than each other.

Every afternoon, the same daily ritual of patriotic posturing by Indian and Pakistani troops gets underway.

Monty Python fans would enjoy their theatrical goose-steps as they try to kick higher than each other, before a brief handshake and their respective border gates are slammed shut.

The crowds cheer this extraordinary spectacle of orchestrated patriotism.

Even so, many wish their countries could be at peace.

"We have so much in common, why can't we be friends and bring this wall down," says one man, pointing to the barrier with Pakistan.

There is after all, another history here - much older than the toxic legacy of British partition.

This is part of the old Silk Road.

'Crazy situation'

A revival would allow Suneet Kochhar to sell more of his newsprint to Pakistan.

His Khanna paper factory in nearby Amritsar already sends some there, but because of trade restrictions it all goes by sea via Dubai - a journey that takes weeks when the border is just 30 minutes away.

"It's a crazy situation," he says, which leaves Pakistani buyers paying 14 times the price in India.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
India and Pakistan's rivalry extends beyond the field of sport

What has raised hopes is Mr Zardari's efforts to divorce economic ties from other issues and finally to reciprocate on most-favoured nation trading status for India, 16 years after Delhi did the same for Islamabad.

Pakistan is also talking of dropping a restrictive list of what products it will buy from India.

But even if this happens, after fighting three wars, a deep gulf remains between the two neighbours over many issues.

For India, memories of the 2008 Mumbai attacks - which left 165 people dead - are still fresh.

The US and India allege they were masterminded by Hafiz Saeed, who lives openly in Pakistan. This week Washington slapped a $10m bounty on his head.

Pakistan resents India's involvement in Afghanistan.

Both countries still have nuclear warheads trained on each other.

"These are baby steps," says veteran journalist and commentator MJ Akbar of the latest talk of a thaw.

He remembers even higher hopes before a dinner meeting between Mr Musharraf and former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, when all the places had been set, and then "we discovered no-one was dining".

Back at the border, a symbolic handshake brings the daily show of nationalist fervour to an end.

Then they lower their flags - both sides trying to make sure their colours are last to come down.

It is painfully slow progress.