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India-Pakistan equation

September 10, 2012

AMIDST the constant inflow of disturbing news from the Af-Pak theatre, we have one positive to point to: the thaw in India-Pakistan relations.

Ever since India re-engaged in dialogue over two years ago, significant headway has been made on various issues — principally trade and investment. The weekend visit by the Indian foreign minister has given the latest boost to efforts at rapprochement.

To be sure, it is entirely premature to be talking about normalisation of India-Pakistan ties. We have only begun the journey and there is no guarantee that we’ll come out on top at the other end. But there are certain variables which make the present as good a time as ever to make this happen.

First, the growing power differential between Pakistan and India creates a genuine desire to move forward on the part of the traditionally revisionist power: Pakistan. Islamabad’s growing internal weakness and limited diplomatic options (courtesy largely the soured relations with the US) imply that it is fairly desperate to cool off on the eastern front. The discussion in the corridors of power in Islamabad, and even Rawalpindi to some extent, has categorically shifted from ‘we should’ to ‘we have no option’. And thus, what we are witnessing is a Pakistan that has come around to India’s longstanding demand of moving along on economic ties while other issues are dealt with at their own pace.

This is different from the early Composite Dialogue days when Pakistan’s economy was doing fairly well and in an odd way, Musharraf’s team believed it was India that had realised after the 2001-02 crisis that it had no option but to find a middle ground on Kashmir. The discussion then was much more on an even keel and Kashmir remained at the centre even as much else was discussed.

Second, unparalleled in recent times, Pakistan seems to be seeking a genuine re-pivot of its foreign policy priorities. The past three years have seen a visible effort to intensify regional diplomacy and reach out to India, Iran, the Central Asian republics and even Russia. While none of this can substitute the importance of a healthy Pakistan-US relationship, it does imply that the move to open up to India is grounded in a deeper shift in orientation. Islamabad can therefore be expected to persist with the process even as it gets little in return in the initial phases.

Third, it’s energy, stupid! No matter which way you cut it, Pakistan and India will continue to face acute energy shortages and neither can make do without bilateral cooperation on this front. Never before has the imperative for Pakistan to offer its location as a transit hub been more critical for the region. And given that the issue of energy is so near and dear to the heart of an average Pakistani (and soon enough will be to an Indian’s), this will be a relatively compelling sell.

Finally, there is better PR around the thaw than there was earlier. Musharraf’s process had greater focus on getting Kashmiri leaders to agree to his formula but much less in terms of getting Pakistani political parties and the masses on board. Because the current effort is spearheaded by political governments on both sides and still has the blessings of the Pakistani military, there is naturally more permanence attached to it.

So far, the government has done fairly well in emphasising the wisdom in opening up trade and investment without allowing this to be seen as something where Pakistan has had to accept India’s longstanding demand without getting much as quid pro quo.

Various developments have helped: even though the business community is divided, those who favour opening up of trade are being given more airtime than the naysayers. The fact that the direction of trade already is and will continue to be skewed heavily in India’s favour in the short to medium term is being overshadowed by various gravity model predictions and public pronouncements highlighting Pakistan’s potential gains.

There is a lot of chatter about regional connectivity in South Asia and the potential for Pakistan as a transit state — transit to and from India included of course. The military leadership’s de facto support is reflected by its complete silence over the trade issue coupled with some positive general statements on the need for peace with India from the very top. New Delhi has been very careful not to say anything on Kashmir that would allow detractors in Pakistan to blame the government for giving up on the issue.

As for India, it is sitting pretty in a lot of ways and thus the compulsions are not nearly as strong.

The reasons for optimism here are not the clichés we hear with some frequency: that India realises that it can’t reach the global stage till it resolves its disputes with Pakistan; that the Indian state wants to help Pakistan stabilise; or that India hurts due to Pakistan-linked terrorism and thus has no option but to engage. None of these hold beyond a point.

The real pull for Indian involvement is simple: after years, the dice has rolled unequivocally in India’s favour. Economic ties are leading the way and New Delhi has believed all along that if trade ties expand, issues like Kashmir will find the back burner sooner or later.

Moreover, the last decade has shown lack of Indian military or diplomatic resource to compel Pakistan to clamp down on terrorism and so its best chance is to allow the liberal interdependence theory — economic interaction leading to peace — to work its magic. In the interim, it realises that more Mumbais may come but it will absorb that cost as long as the process seems to be led by economics rather than outstanding political disputes.

To be sure, none of this implies that normalisation awaits us. Much can go wrong. But there are reasons to believe that the current effort has a better chance of success; both sides are more likely to overlook parallel distractions than they would have in the past.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.