Foreign minister of Pakistan Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi is a longtime member of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and hails from the Sindh province. He has been very close to the Bhutto-Zardari family, and was on the truck with Benazir Bhutto on 18 October 2007, the day she returned to Karachi from her exile abroad, when she was targeted by terrorists.
Here are edited excerpts from an exclusive interview with Jyoti Malhotra in Islamabad, the first to an Indian newspaper after the newly elected government came to power in Pakistan.
As the foreign minister of the newly-elected government in Pakistan, what is your view of India-Pakistan relations.
I want movement with speed on normalization, on cooperation, and improvement in the entire environment, people to people, trade, to improve the confidence of the people and governments in each other. I want the region to prosper. I have a vision for the region and this is peace, stability and development.
How do you translate that?
By trusting each other, by realizing that we have common challenges. India and Pakistan today are both suffering from energy deficiency, food prices, we have a common interest in the management of water resources, making SAARC an effective body, at international platforms like the WTO, climate change, etc. This movement can change the entire atmosphere of our relationship. There are so many win-win situations, such as agriculture, look at the commonalities we have.
You feel the time has come…
Yes, the time has come to pull South Asia out of poverty, deprivation and backwardness. We don’t have to look far within Asia. Look at China which grows at 11% per annum.
You have often spoken of the importance of trade in the bilateral relationship.
Our bilateral trade is now touching $2 billion (Rs8,560 crore), that’s nothing. If you open up, then (the) sky’s the limit. This region is so used to trading, for centuries. What has happened in the last so many years is unnatural—we are buying the same products from third countries and not willing to acknowledge each other. I feel both sides can gain out of it.
But what can you do?
We are convening a meeting of the Joint Commission in July to discuss all these issues, to look at success stories and areas which are doable. Once we have a number of success stories, there will be a snowballing effect. This forum has been lying dormant for a while.
Cement, for example, is a success story of India selling something to Pakistan. We have had 3 million bales of cotton coming from India. Prices of food are fluctuating, your seasons of citrus and mango are different, so why can’t we provide food to each other?
Can trade improve the political atmosphere?
Certainly. Another project that can improve the economic growth as well as political atmosphere is the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline (IPI). Pakistan is deficient in energy, our requirements are growing 7-8% per annum, as is northern India. Iran is next door. If India wants to join, the project becomes even more viable.
You had talks about this with the Indian foreign minister?
Yes, I told him how we were suffering from severe electricity shortages. Frankly, I told him, we would love to have India join this project, but we feel that if you need more time to think about it, alright, but we are going ahead. Because we cannot wait anymore.
So are you looking at alternatives to India, like China?
Well, we are happy to limit the pipeline to Pakistan, that is do an I-P, or Iran-Pakistan, pipeline. If India is willing, we are more than happy to have an I-P-I. And if China is willing — and western China is deficient (in energy) and, yes, they have shown keenness — then it could be I-P-I-C, or it could just be I-P-C.
Have the Chinese shown interest?
It was discussed when I went to Beijing, when the foreign minister of China came here, and the answer is yes. China has huge energy requirements, and their requirements are growing.
Did you get a response from the Indian foreign minister?
They shared a paper with us, which they got from the Iranians when the Iranian president stopped over in Delhi. But I personally feel that we should get going. I haven’t had time to look at the paper, but I think India is dragging its feet. They’re not saying no, but they’re not saying yes either.
So are these the old security concerns, that militants can turn off the tap within Pakistan?
We can find answers to that. The point is, if we have to deliver at the border and if there are financial interests linked to it, why would we turn off the tap? What would we get out of it? There are so many security concerns, and they can be answered in a way to your satisfaction. If this thing is put on the ground and it works, look at the confidence it’ll build. We had huge water issues, lots of concerns, but the Indus Waters Treaty has worked despite problems on both sides. On this (IPI) as well, we can put a mechanism into place that will answer all your concerns.
How long are you willing to wait for the Indians to come back and give you an answer?
We are not willing to wait now. We are going ahead.
But you want to wait for an answer, right…
We want to wait for an answer, we made it very clear to them, so when I come to India (in June) I will tell them again, because I do believe that is the way forward.
Do you have a time-period, how long are you willing to wait?
I think when I come in June, by then they should be able to make up their minds.
So can you call this a peace pipeline?
Why not? It is a project that works for mutual benefit. Iran, Pakistan and India, all gain. You name a loser, there is none.
How does this improve the political atmosphere between the two countries?
We have a trust deficit between us, and these exchanges and joint projects will address that?
What about a liberal visa regime?
I want more Pakistanis to go there and Indians to come here. We discussed that, amongst ourselves. This is the need of the hour.
How does this help resolve older issues like Kashmir and Siachen?
As I have said, there are some issues that are doable, and some that will take more time. We have to be realistic, but we have to move on. Sir Creek and Siachen, in my view, are doable. If the political leadership exercises the political will, then they are doable. I had good discussions on that and hopefully things will move on.
Are the blueprints ready?
On Sir Creek, we’ve done a joint survey, now have a common map, we’re very clear on where we are and where we can go. On Siachen, as you know, we came very close to addressing the issue, unfortunately we could not clinch it at the right time. Once again, we have made a package proposal (to Pranab Mukherjee). We want to understand and incorporate your (India’s) point of view into our scheme of things, because if you’re not comfortable you won’t do it. So lets create a situation where both sides are comfortable. We’ve made a package proposal which takes those concerns into account and narrows differences. We’ve said, okay, don’t compromise your positions, but we can still move on.
So it is possible to do that?
I personally feels the Indian political leadership understands the significance of what I am saying. I am told it is the Indian army that is a bit reluctant on the Siachen issue. But you see there is a third angle to it, and that is environmental. There are so many soldiers on the top of the glacier, and so much activity taking place, it could soon become an environmental disaster. That angle has not been brought into discussions.
How can you find a via media? Are you giving an assurance that if the Indian army comes down from the heights, the Pakistan army will not occupy them?
It can be done. Whatever we expect you to do, we will respond in equal fashion. If we expect you to do something, we will do something as well.
So the Congress-led government in Delhi should have no concerns from Pakistan?
Whether it’s the Congress, or before that the BJP, which started the process, both parties are very much on board. We have had four rounds of this composite dialogue. Some people have expressed frustration, that there has been no dramatic improvement, but on the whole I feel this is a successful process.
How do you feel when bombs go off in India and several people blame Pakistan for it?
When I heard about the Jaipur incident, I was very hurt. We know what a menace this is, because we have been victims of terrorism ourselves. On October 18, I was on that truck with Benazir Bhutto and I very nearly got killed myself. I saw people die a few feet away from me. My son, who was on the truck with me, was injured. I lost my leader in a terrorist attack. I see bombs go off in Pakistan. After Jaipur, there was Mardan (a city in Pakistan’s frontier province), in which 14 innocent people died. What was their fault? What was the fault of those who died in Jaipur? So, we must fight terrorism together. There is an anti-terror mechanism and I am very happy to activate that.
When our foreign minister says the relationship is predicated on an end to terrorism, what do you make of it?
There will always be spoilers on both sides, we shouldn’t allow them to come in the way. If you want to look at as a basis to stop the process, yes, you can develop it into an argument. But if you want to move on, if you want to normalize, you must look at the larger picture. The larger picture is movement, closeness, progress in our mutual interest. And these incidents should not come in our way. I appreciate the comments of the Indian prime minister and foreign minister after the Jaipur blasts, which were measured. Getting into the blame-game is so easy, we’ve done it for 60 years. We have to start thinking differently if we want to make progress.
On Kashmir, what is your party’s view on the proposals that President Musharraf had made to the Indian government?
Both sides acknowledge there is a back channel, we feel there is no harm in having a back channel. If innovative ideas can be thrown up, we should not shun our minds to it.
Your prime minister has said that these are half-baked ideas.
Because there is nothing finalized, these are just ideas.
You have said that Mr Manmohan Singh will visit this year?
Yes, his visit is due. Now we have in Pakistan a democratically elected government, which has come into power through a credible election. The elections have been accepted internationally and domestically. Even the losers have accepted the results. The government is led by a party which is signatory to the Shimla agreement. On board is Mr Nawaz Sharif’s party who are the initiators of the Lahore bus process. We have Asfandyar Wali Khan in the coalition, who spoke about peace before anyone else. I think this is a great opportunity. The environment is right and we should not miss this opportunity.
So you think the PM will come to Pakistan this year?
I think he will. If he wants to leave his name in history, he must come. If he misses this opportunity, it will be sad for all of us.