Islamabad has shown extraordinary persistence in continually renewing the invitation to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan. More recently, it was done by its foreign minister, commerce minister and President Asif Ali Zardari himself during his pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharif. Unfortunately, bilateral meetings held in the wake of Mr Zardari’s visit, including between the foreign secretaries, were not particularly productive. A fresh formal invitation combines the mundane and the sacred by suggesting that Manmohan Singh joins the Guru Nanak Jayanti celebrations at his ancestral village Gah.
As a theme, ‘Befriending India’ is likely to be considered wildly optimistic; the contentious agenda has all but expanded to include water-related issues and apprehensions about the Indian project in Afghanistan. And yet, there is a change in dynamics that can provide a climate in which a more harmonious relationship may well be negotiated. Deeper processes are at work in both the countries that make rapprochement a possibility.
That Pakistan has learnt its lessons enough to abandon confrontation is generally recognised. It is ready to move forward. The momentum of the two-nation theory, the 1949 border confrontation, the Kashmir war and many other factors lay behind the Pakistani desire to escape the gravitational pull of India not quite reconciled to partition. Pakistan sought military and economic security through pacts with the West and closer relations with the Arab-Islamic world. The secession of East Bengal accelerated this flight with the Arab world as a favoured destination. In recent years, information technology has brought India’s soft power to Pakistan diluting many of the old prejudices. More importantly, there is a reassuring wish to do what Shahid Javed Burki recommends in “Steps towards greater South Asian cooperation” (August 6): “bring Pakistan back into South Asia in the economic sense”.
In the Pakistani view, India has deliberately prevented a similar evolution of positive thoughts; the Mumbai episode made this task difficult anyway. But there is a change in the Indian approach to the neighbours, from which Pakistan is no longer being entirely excluded.
After being a captive of the hubris generated by its own marketing gimmick of “shining India”, the political elite of India has a more realistic appraisal of national and regional issues. In India-Pakistan Track-2 encounters, you still occasionally come across the view that India does not need Pakistan or even the rest of South Asia. It is usually a tactical ploy. Indian policy is shifting towards a mellower interest in regional trade and other economic exchanges. India has rediscovered that it is not immune to external shocks or, for that matter, internal challenges such as extreme poverty in large swaths of its huge landmass, perils of social polarisation and rampant corruption. The lowering of the GDP growth rate to between 5.5 to 6.5 per cent, depending on what part of the country you look at, makes for a less disdainful attitude towards the neighbours. The power outages that affected 680 million Indians, awakened the Indian elite and outsiders, addicted to an uncritical celebration of the Indian economic miracle to the reality that millions of Indians know only too well.
India can benefit from trade and investment ties with Pakistan and from an eventual access through Pakistan to West and Central Asia. In comparative terms, Pakistan may find valuable opportunities to rehabilitate its troubled economy. Neither side now forbids FDI from the other; it would be a game changer if trade and investment build up to a substantive level.
Improvement of infrastructure and a rapid removal of other inhibiting factors should make it easy to bring the current illegal trade worth $1.5 billion and a substantive part of much larger trade through third countries into the ambit of official trade by land and sea. If Prime Minister Singh and President Zardari are together in Tehran for the Non-Aligned Moot, they can settle the ground rules for Singh’s visit in November. A visit at this stage will create the right atmosphere for issues such as complaints about India’s non-tariff barriers (NTBs), customs procedures, harmonisation of standards and issuance of visas. More significantly, the leaders can initiate a serious dialogue about joint ventures and regional energy grids. This would also be an occasion to exchange views on creating conditions conducive to overland transit in the future.
Delinking economic issues from the larger differences as on Kashmir, terrorism, Afghanistan, a South Asian strategic regime and water can only be relative as they would continue to influence the inflections of bilateral relations. It is vital to make progress on them as well.
In the short term, progress on Kashmir would mean gradual winding down of military presence, repeal of draconian laws, freer intra-Kashmir trade and strengthening of autonomy on both sides of the Line of Control. Such progress would push conflict into the background as would agreements that enable the two nuclear-armed powers to build credible security architecture.
Pakistan should favourably note the lessening of Indian rigidity on Mumbai and seek to carry greater conviction with New Delhi. Some of New Delhi’s concerns are particularly related to its perception of Indian interests in Afghanistan being threatened by the Afghan Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s alleged inroads into that country. Instability in Afghanistan spawns elements that would threaten the interests of all outside powers including India and Pakistan and, therefore, the two South Asian states should make a determined effort to develop a shared perspective on post-2014 Afghanistan.
A summit in Islamabad in November could also clarify the principles by which worsening differences on the Indian interpretation of the Indus Basin Treaty can be resolved. It could also clear the path to a resolution of issues like Sir Creek and Siachen which Pakistan regards as “doable” but India continues to stall. They need not become intractable. There are Indian sages that keep reminding their prime minister that the process can be part of the solution and, therefore, he need not tie up his visit with achievement of spectacular results. He should seriously consider this advice. Bilateral summits seldom fail completely even as they hardly ever constitute a breakthrough.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2012.