A time comes in the history of nations when they have to seriously take stock of the policies they have pursued over the years. Have these produced the results they had initially aimed to achieve? Surely, Pakistan and India have failed miserably if this is the criterion for judging success. In fact, most of the issues that bedevil bilateral relations remain unresolved and many more have arisen over time. The need to revisit policy is very much there and the recent brief private visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Lahore gave hope that India’s attitude, after all, may be changing. What is important for both countries is to find ways of achieving peace even if it means deviating from classic diplomatic practices.
Modi’s initial policy to browbeat Pakistan by isolating and putting pressure on it did not yield results. As tensions escalated and the Line of Control turned volatile, the situation got precarious. More significantly, the economic agenda of both countries could have been adversely affected. Modi would have never been able to realise his dream of transforming India into an economic powerhouse unless there was peace in the region. The leadership role also demands that policies that are pursued find acceptability and respect in the region and globally. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is equally keen on improving the economy on a fast track and for that the country needs both external and internal peace. The challenge of fighting the insurgency in Fata and terrorism domestically requires that security forces are not distracted by external threats. The notion that the military leadership is averse to normalisation of relations with India may not be true in the changed circumstances. It is, however, not clear to what extent it would like the rapprochement to progress. It seems the parameters or red lines that existed two years back when moves were made to normalise relations with India have since been relaxed. The anti-government protests led by Imran Khan were but a symptom of a deeper dysfunction within the civil-military relationship, and a stark reminder that policy towards India has to be cleared by the establishment.
Kashmir continues to cast a heavy shadow on India-Pakistan relations. A solution based on compromise that accommodates widely divergent viewpoints of the three parties to the conflict will be difficult to find. But this is only possible if there is movement in other areas and a relatively more peaceful environment prevails.
Pakistan’s development of tactical nuclear weapons in response to the Cold Start doctrine is another subject that would require addressing if relations have to be stabilised on a long-term basis. Tactical nuclear weapons in the South Asian context provide a paradigm shift from their traditional role as strategic weapons of mass destruction to an operational role in the field. Both the Cold Start doctrine and the tactical nuclear response need to be revisited on a priority basis.
Relations with India should not been viewed in isolation. If relations remain strained, the prospects of both countries fighting their proxy wars in Afghanistan pose another challenge. The Afghan government’s relations with Pakistan generally remain sour and blame is apportioned on the latter. It may not be an exaggeration to state that there will be a positive impact on our relations with Afghanistan if relations with India were to improve. Similarly, a more favourable environment will be created in the countries of Saarc, fostering greater cooperation. Otherwise, the organisation will remain a hostage to their rivalry.
Better relations with India should contribute towards correcting the civil-military imbalance. The hostile environment perforce makes Pakistan spend more on defence and other security-related issues, thereby affecting overall development.
Pakistan has been resisting India’s demand to use its land route to Afghanistan and beyond to Central Asia. The Afghan government is equally keen that its vehicles be allowed to go directly to India. Pakistan’s geographical location positions it strategically to be an energy, trade and economic corridor linking South Asia with Central Asia. The establishment is averse to this and wants to use the strategic location as a quid pro quo against a major breakthrough on Kashmir. Opposition to this policy may have had some merit in the past, but needs to be seriously reviewed. The major asset of Pakistan’s geographic location that gives it geo-political and geo-economic leverage should be exploited for unifying people and strengthening road, rail and radio communications. As of now, ironically, it is only militant organisations that seem to have been exploiting it. Pakistan’s economy will clearly benefit if it were to open the route to India. Sadly, the two countries’ current trade level is miniscule in comparison to the potential that exists. India’s non-tariff barriers are a source of contention, but surely a way out can be found, as other countries trading with India must have discovered. The other argument commonly advanced against opening up trade ties with India is that Pakistan will be flooded with Indian goods, strangulating our nascent industry. This is not a valid argument. If Pakistan continues to expand its trade with China, there is scant justification for not increasing the volume and range of trade activity with India that has a population of 1.2 billion. The question of granting the MFN status should not be held in abeyance indefinitely. Improving trade relations are the best way of forging a durable relationship. Improved trade relations that are not subjected to political fluctuations have the potential of integrating lives of millions of people in both countries. Besides, trade will increase mutual dependence and act as dampener against those forces that are promoting conflict.
The threats posed by climate change are a reality in today’s world. Prudence demands that this threat that knows no borders should act as a strong incentive for close and sustained cooperation between India and Pakistan.
There are innumerable cross-border issues — security, economic, water shortages and climate change — to name a few in which the two countries can cooperate for the benefit of millions of their citizens.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 30th, 2015.