Mian Nawaz Sharif’s visit to India seems to have angered a lot of people including some typical quarters such as the religious right and parts of the military. Although it seems that some kind of agreement was reached between the army chief and the prime minister, some of the military’s analysts were still frothing at their mouths on the trip. One particular gent even tried to pick issues with Sharif’s protocol when actually nothing was wrong with it. The fact is that Mian sahib was warmly greeted and there were more eyes on him than on any other leader.
What is worse is to see people suddenly getting nervous as if Nawaz Sharif was there to sacrifice the country and has damaged Pakistan’s honour in some way. It was interesting to hear Jamaat-e-Islami’s (JI) Fareed Paracha, for instance, talk about how he was certain that the visit would not pave the way for more concessions for Pakistan and we will soon forget about our honour and commitment to Kashmir and focus entirely on trade and profit-making. In yet another television programme, there were people who shuddered at the idea of economic compulsions taking precedence over military-strategic issues.
One is tempted to ask if the economy is not more strategic than Kashmir or any other matter? Notwithstanding the fact that Pakistan has fought its wars for years with the help of proxies and now the dependency has become even greater, for countries to even compete with each other militarily requires economic resources. Or does Paracha sahib think, like a retired colonel I met recently, that China would take care of all our strategic needs and will ensure that we don’t have to stoop down to improving relations with India. Perhaps the JI leader feels that Islamabad does not have a dearth of resources as the state could even borrow money from the Taliban who had once made such an offer to undertake its economic and military modernisation. But even China, on several occasions, has warned us to improve ties with New Delhi.
The more important matter, however, is the peculiar attitude towards profit-making. The militant mindset considers profit-making a sin. So, when you tell them that there are enough trader merchants in Pakistan who are eager to trade with India the response is always negative. There were many that looked forward to Modi’s success because, in their estimation, a strong and stable government in India could achieve much more than a weak Manmohan Singh government in improving trade ties. The general reaction to such perception is that these traders have a dirty mind and are sacrificing national honor on profit-making. Such thinking is typically reflective of a military-bureaucratic approach.
I remember talking to military personnel and civilian vendors for the defence industry for my book on Pakistan’s arms procurement decision-making that had a whole section on the defence industry. Whenever quizzed about why the generals didn’t allow the private sector to share the burden, the answer would always be because they have poor quality and for the civilian industrialists it is more important to make money. I wonder if these generals would ask their friends that are in charge of making cement and sugar for the military foundations about how Fauji Foundation was one of the companies that benefited from exporting sugar to India during the early 1990s under the first Nawaz Sharif government? Or how they make money by selling cement everywhere?
The question is why view profit-making as sin? Businesses and industries are established not to loose money but to make money. This is how it is done all over the world. Defence industries all over the world, for instance, manufacture not simply for the love of country but to keep their machines running, pay their workforce and put money in their pockets. This does not mean that they compromise on issues on which there is a general consensus that these are vital for their national interest. Arguably, the defence industry benefits from war so it would stand on the right side of a military establishment. In Pakistan’s case, the fear is that trade, once started in the realm of legal economy, would generate greater links that would eventually make the military redundant. The fact is that in Pakistan, the expectation of a peace dividend is higher than in India. This is despite that many military cronies have been busy projecting lately that Pakistan’s military expenditure is no burden on the economy or the state.
A larger issue is why consider these business people or ordinary Pakistanis as traitors if they ask for improving trade relations? We have obsessed about Kashmir for a very long time and even indulged in adventurism that we found out was not affordable. The simple idea behind trade is to normalise ties to an extent that we may begin to understand each other’s perspective and think of solutions, even to long-term disputes, without going to war. Surely, this is also a gamble but a less costly gamble than launching various forms of war or burdening the society with proxies to attain state objectives. Why can’t we be confident about our own people that in case there is actually a matter of the country’s survival, people will support the state even though they may have economic ties? Nevertheless, we have to let ourselves go for a change. A senior retired army officer recently talked about how trade was a good idea but the government ought to be careful. His statement reflected a confusion not regarding trade as such but about how far the GHQ would want to go with India. To the military, trade will only lead to providing India opportunities in Afghanistan that it doesn’t want happening.
So, if it is not Kashmir it is Afghanistan. Notwithstanding that we must insist on Modi working in good faith, the fact is it is time Pakistan sympathetically thought of itself, its world view and its priorities. We need a lease on life.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2014.
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