Dec 16, 2009

Business, not jingoism

By Waqar Ahmad

On the first anniversary of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai last month, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) released a controversial document titled "Task Force Report on National Security and Terrorism." It advised New Delhi to launch a limited but intense attack on Pakistani territory to prevent similar acts of terrorism.

This has taken the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry and chambers of commerce in Pakistani cities by surprise, and dismayed Pakistan's business leaders. The FICCI is one of India's oldest business organisations. But, unlike the chambers and business networks in Pakistan, the FICCI works closely with the government of the country.

The report calls for immediate prohibition of trade with Pakistan and closure of travel routes, as well as denial of permission for overflights to Pakistani airliners.

The report is a rejection of the FICCI's own policies. For instance, in a recent Business Leaders Conclave in Colombo last month, the FICCI signed an economic cooperation declaration on development of regional collaboration. To the leading business houses in Pakistan, the FICCI was a platform where they could initiate new business partnerships in India.

The report is likely to have a negative impact and change perceptions in the business sector, and thus dramatically harm bilateral economic relations. It could deepen the political mistrust between the two countries. It will diminish the potential of bilateral trade and enable the penetration of the Indian establishment into the business sector. The report is a matter of serious concern for businesses on both sides, because its contents could create an alarming situation in both business and political fields.

The timing of the report is also significant. It coincides with the Indian army chief's policy statement, which calls for a limited war with Pakistan. It can be argued that the FICCI is playing into the hands of the Indian establishment.

The negative implications of the document are already evident from the response of the business sector in Pakistan. The Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry has responded by suspending the sending of business delegations to India and advised its members to immediately halt trade and business engagement with that country until the resumption of the Composite Dialogue between Pakistan and India. Business leaders in Karachi, Islamabad, Faisalabad, Multan and Peshawar have similarly shown resentment against the report.

There is a dire need for immediate confidence-building measures. The FICCI should engage in damage control to regain its image. In future, the FICCI should refuse to engage in such controversial activities and restrict its involvement to the advocacy and promotion of regional trade.

It is unfortunate that the leadership of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) has no time to address this matter of great concern and take a firm policy stand. The FPCCI for once needs to think beyond and above its petty domestic business politics and proactively engage in dialogue with the FICCI to make it aware of the negative implications of its report's on bilateral trade and economic relations.

Chamber networks in Pakistan, especially the FPCCI, must seek an official clarification from the FICCI, and this should be done without any further delay. In case there is a lukewarm response from across the border, the FPCCI must plan its future strategy in relation to the FICCI and other chamber networks in India. There is no doubt that national economic interests and diplomacy must drive our future engagement in global politics, but it should not compromise on national sovereignty over profits at any time.

Moderate elements at the FICCI must advocate restraint, taking into account the fact that businesses in Pakistan are losing millions of dollars and hundreds of lives every day because of the war against terrorism. Incident similar to 26/11 are replicated every other day in Pakistan.

It is time that the two countries' businesses and chamber networks stood together and provided support to bilateral business interests, rather than advising their governments to adopt the option of war against neighbours. The FICCI is a responsible international institution and has always stood for business and economic cooperation in the region.

There should not be confusion in any mind that surgical strikes and limited war by India will not only be responded to with equal force but will eventually end up in a full-scale war, with devastating results for the two countries' inhabitants. Conflicts and wars produce no winners, only losers.

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