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Tentative Agenda

Despite latent politics, the trio decide to trade more than insults

Tentative Agenda
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The one-day business summit between Bangladesh, India and Pakistan was progressing smoothly until a hitch developed towards the end forcing a delay in the release of the Joint Declaration by more than an hour. According to insiders, the cause was a dispute between India and Pakistan over the use of certain words in the declaration. Typically, it was not so much the meaning of the words used, as an official noted, but the nuances that provoked the Indian objection.

In any case, a compromise was reached after hectic negotiations among the participants when the relevant sentences were rephrased. On the surface, the dispute seems trivial and perhaps puerile, but it served to highlight the deep-seated misgivings New Delhi and Islamabad harbour vis-a-vis each other.

This perhaps explains why there was not much of an interest in what the Business Summit, held in Dhaka on January 15, was expected to produce economically, but on its political significance. "I think we deserve some credit for bringing I.K. Gujral and Nawaz Sharif together after a hiatus of nearly three months," said a Bangladesh foreign ministry official.

Not surprisingly, all three leaders used the forum to discuss bilateral issues. And all attention was  on the Gujral-Sharif talks and the problems besetting the bilateral dialogue. Of course, no one expected any miracle out of this meeting, "but it produced concrete results in the sense that the two prime ministers agreed to further continue the talks at the foreign secretary level", said an Indian official present during the meeting.

Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina,on her part, used the opportunity to seek her Indian counterpart's intervention in removing certain obstacles hindering the implementation of the Ganges water-sharing treaty. She also held talks with Sharif, who stayed on for another two days for bilateral meetings, requesting him to honour his earlier commitment of taking back nearly a quarter of a million Pakistani nationals, referred to as 'Biharis', languishing in refugee camps for more than two decades.

The business summit, proposed by Hasina, was first scheduled to be held last November but had to be postponed due to political developments in India and Pakistan that threatened to dislodge both Gujral and Sharif. Although Sharif has emerged stronger in the aftermath of the political crisis in his country, Gujral is now merely heading a caretaker government. In fact, given his much hyped doctrine, Gujral's uncertain future cast a shadow over the success of the business summit aimed exclusively at fostering trade

and economic cooperation between these countries. What further caused dismay among most participants was when the leader of the Pakistani business delegate Ilyas Ahmed Bilour addressed Gujral as the "caretaker prime minister". His remarks evoked widespread criticism from most who called it "unbecoming and highly discourteous" as they noticed Gujral's face turn pale.

Despite the hiccup, the summit, the first of its kind in the region, produced an atmosphere of camaraderie and warmth, especially between the business communities of the three countries. The business leaders seem to be happy about the fact that the political leaders have finally recognised the private sector as the real motor of growth in this era of free market and liberalisation. In other words, they now hope to work together to reduce the authority of the hidebound bureaucrats who are universally accused of putting brakes in the growth of the private sector.

A combination of factors, the business leaders said, contributed to the dismal performance of the economies in the region for decades. Due mostly to historical political differences, they said, the three countries had been looking towards the West for economic development rather than at one another in the region.

 Although one-fifth of the world's population resides in these three countries, their share in the world trade is less than 1 per cent and intra-regional trade is deplorably low at 3 per cent of the countries' total trade. What is more striking is that of the total global foreign direct investment of about $300 billion only about 1 per cent has found its way into the three countries.

"Unless we can set aside our political differences and instead unite our efforts we'll be swept away by the strong wind of free trade and globalisation now sweeping the globe," said Yussuf Abdullah Harun, president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry who was the main man behind the summit. But given the subcontinent's track record, ensuring unity will not be that easy.

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