It was the first press conference of Hammad Azhar as finance minister after he presided over the meeting of the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC). The first decision he announced as head of the ECC was to import sugar and cotton from India. The announcement made headlines not just in Pakistan but across the border too. The move was seen as part of efforts to normalise ties between the two countries.
Pakistan had downgraded diplomatic ties and suspended bilateral trade with India in reaction to New Delhi’s decision to revoke the special status of disputed Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019. The newly appointed finance minister defended the decision to allow import of sugar and cotton by suggesting the ECC took it in the “best interest of the Pakistani people”. The move naturally invited a strong reaction from the opposition parties, particularly the PML-N, which had to face the wrath of the PTI when it tried to normalise ties with the neighbouring country.
But that response from the opposition and government’s critics was expected. What was unexpected was that the cabinet would not endorse the ECC decision. The government tried to give the impression that the PM was not consulted on the ECC proposal, although that seemed bizarre given that the PM, who happens to hold the portfolio of commerce also, had approved the summary first and then forwarded it to the ECC for further action. The question is: why this flip flop? If the government felt the decision to gradually normalise ties with India was in the best interest of the people, then what prompted the cabinet to backtrack? It seemed that something did happen between the ECC decision and the cabinet meeting.
Over the past weeks, particularly after February 25, when Pakistan and India agreed to restore ceasefire along the LoC, the two neighbours have been giving positive signals. Both sides lowered the rhetoric as they have avoided blame game even at the recently held Heart of Asia — Istanbul conference on Afghanistan. The talks were also held by the Permanent Indus Commissioner after a gap of over two and a half years. The decision to allow import of sugar and cotton was also perceived against the backdrop of rapprochement both sides were trying to seek.
Amid these efforts, Pakistan was no longer explicitly asking for the restoration of the special status of Kashmir. The only thing the Pakistani leadership was pressing for was to create a ‘conducive environment’ for resumption of talks. But after the cabinet deferred the decision to allow import of sugar and cotton from India, the government has reverted to the old stance — no normalisation of ties until India reviews its August 5, 2019 decision. This only goes to show the inconsistency in our policy, causing confusion and embarrassment for the government.
At the recent Islamabad Security Dialogue, both PM Imran and Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa sounded conciliatory towards India. While the PM called on India to make the first move, General Qamar said it was time to “bury the past and move forward”. These statements suggested behind-the-scene efforts by both countries to seek rapprochement. However, it appears that all stakeholders in Pakistan were not on board. The Foreign Office, for instance, was kept out of the loop on re-opening trade with India. The Pakistan-India relations are complex and at times need certain confidentiality but to keep key stakeholders such as the FO from the process is bizarre. The government needs to put its act together because it cannot afford somersaults on foreign policy issues.
On top of it, we have two options: to follow the same approach we have been adhering to for the past many decades; or follow China that maintains trade and commercial ties with its foes without compromising on its core interests.