Trade not raid

Four years ago, 26/11 aroused fears an India-Pakistan war was in the offing. Today, the talk is about joining their economies at the hip. What changed along the world’s most dangerous border.

india Updated: Apr 17, 2012 02:04 IST

Then The good thing about relations between India and Pakistan is that expectations are low. Even by those standards Mumbai 26/11 left advocates of a new relationship, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a very distant doghouse.

New Delhi tried to restart the peace process after a year or two. But the signals out of Pakistan were confused. The evidence also pointed to the new military chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, not being too excited about picking from where his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, had left off.


Today, there is a buzz about Indo-Pakistan relations and its buzzword is economics. Ayesha Siddiqa, author of a seminal work on the Pakistani army’s corporate activities, Military Inc, says "trade is the new catchword for India-Pakistan relations. The Pakistani government feels that if trade can be boosted, all else will follow."

Islamabad’s sudden decision to proffer India most-favoured-nation status and the economic undertone of President Asif Ali Zardari’s faux Sufi pilgrimage are indicators where the wind is blowing. Civilian leaders like opposition leader Nawaz Sharif have been forever advocates of trade ties with India. But now it’s a full-throated cry coming from every quarter.

The real question is why the Pakistani military, which has resolutely insisted trade – and pretty much everything else – would have to wait until Kashmir was settled, has changed its mind. One seems to a sense of international siege. The Mehran Naval Base attack last year, which showed the extent of Islamicist militant infiltration into the ranks, and the Abbottabad attack, which showed how little the US actually trusted Islamabad, alarmed the army and left Kayani’s reputation in shreds. The chaos on the Afghan border and the unwillingness of China to step into America’s shoes made Pakistan look friendless.

The other was a growing fear about the state of the Pakistan economy. “As the economy reels under high oil prices and power shortages,” says Siddida, “the government is looking for ways to provide relief to the people and imports from India is one way.”

While India is hardly seen as friendly, there seems to be a sense of futility among Pakistanis about this historical hatred. The pointlessness of the Siachen conflict was brought home last week when 130 plus Pakistanis stationed at the glacier were killed by an avalanche. A FM radio DJ, Hasnain Lotia, dedicated Sting’s song “End of the Game” to the Indo-Pakistan rivalry. “This should end now,” he said.

Trade, as both Indian and Pakistani commentators have pointed out ad nauseam, is the easiest, least controversial wedge to use. Musharraf’s unofficial talks at least laid out an outline on Kashmir. It also laid out one on terrorism — but assumed Islamabad could control such activities. Says Pakistani analyst Muhammad Riaz, “The premise is that the Jamaat ud Dawa acted on its own in the Mumbai attacks. Then what stops them from attacking India again?”

And wiping out all these gains.

Nonetheless, if the economic relationship can be fixed, first in plaster and then in concrete, it may survive such an attack – or a shootout in Kashmir. If so, it would be the first real evidence that “constituencies for peace” in the broader sense are being created in both countries.

Don’t watch this space for peace and brotherhood in five years. But in 10 years it could be just possible that an emotional historical hatred may have been replaced by a hard-head partnership of the present.

First Published: Apr 17, 2012 01:33 IST