Islamabad: A day after granting MFN status to India, the Pakistan government on Thursday appeared to be playing to the gallery by being ambiguous on the issue. The Foreign Office here said the Cabinet had cleared a move for normalisation of bilateral trade relations that will "culminate" with MFN.

India had granted Pakistan MFN status way back in 1996 but Islamabad had so far held out on reciprocating due to opposition from some trade lobbies and religious and hardline political parties which contended that such a move would harm the country's stand on the Kashmir issue.

At the weekly news conference, Foreign Office spokesperson Tehmina Janjua gave the government's position when she was asked about the confusion surrounding the move to grant India MFN status.

"The Cabinet fully endorsed the efforts of the Ministry of Commerce for complete normalisation of trade relations (with India) and directed to implement in letter and spirit the decisions taken in this regard," she said.

The Cabinet gave the Commerce Ministry the "mandate to take the process of normalisation forward, which would culminate in the observance of Most Favoured Nation principle in its true spirit", Janjua said, reading from a statement issued by the Commerce Ministry.

Hours before Thursday's news briefing at the Foreign Office, the Commerce Ministry's statement was removed from the Press Information Department's website.

When this was pointed out to Janjua by reporters, she insisted that the statement reflected the government's stance. Pakistan Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan on Wednesday announced that the federal Cabinet had unanimously approved a proposal to give India MFN status.

"After a lengthy discussion and a briefing by the Commerce Secretary, the Cabinet unanimously approved the Commerce Ministry's summary to grant Most Favoured Nation status to India," she had told a crowded news conference.

Two other statements on the Press Information Department's website, however, merely said the Cabinet had cleared a proposal for "normalisation of trade relations" with India.

These statements were in marked contrast to Awan's announcement.

Significantly, Awan had announced that all stakeholders, including the powerful military, were "on board" for the move to give India MFN status.

Hours after the Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Awan's news conference, a statement issued by the Prime Minister's Secretariat late in the night said the Cabinet was "briefed on the steps being taken for normalisation of trade with India".

The Cabinet was "apprised about the further steps to be taken in this direction so as to bring trade in line with our international obligations", the statement said without making any mention of the MFN status for India.

The Cabinet directed the Commerce Ministry to "ensure that Pakistan's vital national economic interests are fully protected", the statement said.
 
Another statement issued by the government on the Cabinet meeting's decisions too said the Cabinet had approved the Commerce Division's proposal for "normalisation of trade relations between Pakistan and India".

When spokesperson Janjua was asked during the news briefing whether the grant of MFN status would mean Pakistan no longer considered India a "hostile country", she replied that the two countries were engaged in a dialogue process that aims at ensuring peace, stability and prosperity in the region.

"That clearly indicates Pakistan and India have both agreed that friendly ties between the two countries are important and critical for development of the region and prosperity of the people of both countries," she said. 

Janjua made it clear that granting MFN status to India would not affect Pakistan's stand on the Kashmir issue.

She said all issues of "critical importance" to Pakistan and India are "on the table and are being repeatedly discussed".

"The issue of peace and security and Jammu and Kashmir were discussed by the Foreign Secretaries earlier this year and later by the Foreign Ministers," she said.

(Agencies)