The tempestuous nature of India-Pakistan ties in recent months has generated charged rhetoric on both sides. The publics have often been primed by governments to maintain hostile attitudes to the neighbour – and when policy changes, it creates a measure of popular confusion that needs to be cleared by effective communication.
To that end, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has helpfully articulated to Parliament the NDA’s approach to ties with Pakistan. The thinking is fairly clearheaded. Good ties with Pakistan fit in with aspirations for peace and development in the region which depend on regional integration in South Asia. Bilateral estrangement is a hurdle for achieving regional ambitions. India and Pakistan need to address “principal obstacles to the growth of ties, especially terrorism”.
Pointedly avoiding an accusatory tenor, Ms Swaraj said “both sides condemned terrorism and resolved to cooperate to eliminate this menace”; she mentioned that India was assured of steps being taken to expedite the Mumbai attacks trials.
Ms Swaraj stated that dialogue will aim to remove hurdles, address issues of concern while at the same time explore and establish cooperative ties. The latter will, importantly, not be conditional on the former but will run concurrently. The minister mentioned people-to-people exchanges, among other things, as contributing to a better understanding and mutual trust. Both governments should take this area of policy seriously if they are clear about countering xenophobic elements in mainstream and social media and changing the tenor of public conversation about neighbours.
The people of India and Pakistan grow up with little idea of what the other country is like, making them vulnerable to extremist propaganda. But those who have had a bit of acquaintance cannot have enough as Indians who watch Pakistani television dramas or buy their fabric in trade fairs will attest.
Audiences in both countries should be able to watch news and variety programming of the other country. There is a need for more journalists to be posted as correspondents. Cricket ties are useful too but tend to be episodic; there is a need to consolidate contact across ages, sector and regions. We need to be mindful of “hurdles” for trust-building posed by non-State actors and State establishments.