Pakistan, beyond the Indian media prism (Letter from Karachi)
Nearly everyone discouraged me from undertaking the plane to Pakistan. But at 46, I knew when to veto uninformed panic, masquerading unwittingly as pure concern.
I had missed several opportunities to breathe the air of this western neighbour and what better than to test all the prejudices and fears that some hawks among within the journalistic fraternity inject.
Mine were: a) The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the army run the country and the political folks are mere puppets; b) the media is uniformly anti-India and so are the youth; c) businessmen are disinterested in trade relations with us as there's more meat on the bone for smuggling goods and services via Dubai.
Pondering over these impressions began well before landing in Karachi. The Pakistan High Commission staff was courteous to a fault and after ascertaining that my papers were in order, the counselor concerned took trouble to grant me a 15-day visa, which included Lahore, too. More so, the passport was in my hands within a few minutes. I imagine this can't the experience of everybody, but yet another confirmation of the fact that diplomats on both sides, if suitably empowered, can work miracles.
The uninitiated may please take note that a visa to Pakistan, or the one we grant them into India, is usually a single-entry one and needs to pre-specify the number of cities that can be visited. Those above 65 can get a multiple entry permit, as can children accompanying them below the age of 12. A welcome measure on the face of it, but whimsical if you expect a 65-year-old to have a 12-year-old child!
The other conditionality relates to "police reporting". It is perfectly normal for a visiting Pakistani or Indian to be told to report daily to a designated 'thana' (police station) in the city mentioned in their visa. This effectively kills half a day in transit and waiting - hardly a recipe fo harmonious relations. I move on lest I'm belabouring the tyranny, but most folks traverse the border not to visit a city per se, but to spend a few hours in the village of their birth/ancestors. Most fail, because the visa they get, often after depositing their passports with the host mission for weeks on end, is for a metropolitan city not their village.
Not surprisingly therefore, despite a potential market of hundreds of thousands of seats per year, the plane to Pakistan goes half empty. Indian carriers don't think it's worth their while to fly there and Pakistan International Airlines touches down only three times a week.
Coming back to my stereotypes, a picture of the ISI director-general calling on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had enough in the body language to tell us who the boss now is. Of course, there are those who think Nawaz Sharif shams his interest in better relations with India.
But it'll be hard to ignore the Pakistan prime minister's continued interest in diplomacy with India -- a trip by his brother and Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif to India last week is, hopefully, a case in point.
The people I met, partly on account of a Track-II dialogue and also thanks to a leading finance expert in Pakistan, who was a batchmate of mine at Harvard, allowed me to sample the love Pakistani media and viewers have for Bollywood.
"I won't know the name of three Pakistani actors," my hosts joked, before launching into a discussion on who Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor should be taking for a life partner. Or how Sunil Gavaskar can be no less a great cricketer, because, after all, Sachin Tendulkar never faced Holding, Roberts, Marshall and Garner - but Gavaskar did without a helmet.
Ask an Indian in Mumbai to name two Pakistani politicians after Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan - and compare the corresponding literacy levels in Karachi. Here in Karachi, you may hear specific stuff on Narendra Modi, Mayawati or even Mamata Banerjee and Sheila Dikshit.
A quick word on businessmen. The economy is down, the theatre in Afghanistan isn't a bed of roses, and the emerging relationship with Iran is a definite dose of positivity. Nawaz Sharif already has grandiose plans of giving seamless connectivity to China. The chairman of China's sovereign fund has been to Pakistan already. Also, Sharif is committed to privatisation - a cause some suspect as a bogey for handing over the family silver to select business families of Pakistan.
Amid all this, India represents a large market for small and medium enterprises. So is our potential to export to them what they need and thus give the ordinary Pakistani consumer a choice and better rates. At the moment, from Indian DVDs to pan masala, nearly everything you may want can be had on Karachi's streets, but hardly anything directly across the Wagah-Attari border.
The consensus, or popular opinion, one gathers is: this should change. Pakistan should prune down the negative list or, simply, offer non-discriminatory access (NDA) to India - if they are uncomfortable with the Urdu translation of the phrase "most-favoured nation".
For those who think the positive tone and tenor of this essay is due to great food and hospitality -- it is. But only in part measure. The bigger issue is enduring peace between the two South Asian neighbours. If we're conjoined by history and geography - can chemistry be far behind? This is the time forging lasting peace -- Pakistan has a civilian government succeeding another one for the first time in its history, a young and restless Pakistani youth yearns for jobs not bombs. The judiciary there is taking even generals to task, and I have what astrologer Bejan Daruwala showed me from his Nostradamus' take on 2014 to support this optimism.
For any of this to happen, visas are the starting point. So, let me end with the lines that haunts on this maiden trip. It was penned some years ago by noted Indian poet Gulzar, who was born at Dina in Pakistan's Jhelum District, as a tribute to his now-deceased Pakistan-based contemporary, who was incidentally born at Luna in India's Jhunjhunu district:
Aankhon ko visa nahi lagta,
Sapno ki sarhad nahi hoti,
Band aankhon se roz main,
Sarhad paar chala aata hun,
Milne Mehdi Hasan se
It goes like: eyes need no visas/dreams transcend boundaries/with eyes closed, I cross the border every day/to meet with Mehdi Hasan.
(Rohit Bansal is chief executive and co-founder, India Strategy Group, Hammurabi and Solomon Consulting. Tweets @therohitbansal).
(Posted on 20-12-2013)