TRADE with India is supposed to be the game-changer in relations between the two countries. Better ties with India, including flinging open the doors to mutually beneficial trade, is supposed to have become a bedrock principle among mainstream politicians. But few things here follow a smooth script. According to a report in this newspaper yesterday, Pakistan has missed a self-imposed deadline to allow all tradable items to cross the land border with India — as opposed to many goods which presently make their way into Pakistan via the sea — because agriculturalists and their supporters in cabinet are reluctant to endorse the government’s own plan ahead of an election. The thinking is typically protectionist, and bereft of a full understanding of what Pakistan would have to do after cabinet endorsement of trade liberalisation with India. Allowing goods to cross over from Wagah and other land routes will not automatically hurt agriculturalists and their powerful supporters because key products like sugar, wheat and cotton would still be regulated. But given the quality of debate in the cabinet and the electoral considerations of politicians becoming paramount with an election on the horizon, rational argument is an unfortunate casualty in decision-making.
Just as worrying is how easily the decision-making process can be manipulated by vested interests, even on the civilian side. The outreach to India could be the centrepiece of this government’s foreign policy credentials going into the election; the manifold benefits of trade, including the positive spillover for other security aspects of the fraught Pakistan-India relationship, are undeniable; and with an economy struggling to return to a high growth path, every little bit can help — and yet the process of trade liberalisation with India has been gummed up because of parochial interests. For constituency politicians, even the impression of hurting their voters’ interests can be fatal — but then that is the point of a federal cabinet: to rise above narrow, local interests and promote policies that benefit society overall.
Over 65 years of a dispiriting relationship with India, there are few reasons or excuses that have not been proffered to thwart better ties. But at least this much has become clear: without bold and courageous political leadership, meaningful improvements in Pakistan-India relations will never materialise. The issues and disputes between Pakistan and India are very real. The hawks on the Indian side are equally real, as is the growing suspicion of Pakistan across the Indian elite in government, civil society and the media. But none of that is reason to stop trying. Trade is a win-win situation for both Pakistan and India; the federal cabinet needs to better educated in the matter.