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Inching closer

While India-Pakistan relations have progressed on some fronts this year, the two still need to tackle fundamental issues. Two experts from either side offer their outlook for 2013.

mumbai Updated: Dec 30, 2012 02:15 IST

While India-Pakistan relations have progressed on some fronts this year, the two still need to tackle fundamental issues. Two experts from either side offer their outlook for 2013.

Expect engagement with estrangement

Sushant Sareen

There is something surreal about the latest round of India-Pakistan engagement, and this is clear from Pakistan interior minister Rehman Malik’s conviction that, despite his bull-in-a-China-shop performance in New Delhi, the trust deficit between the two countries has been ‘completely cleared’ by his visit.

A similarly incongruous statement was made earlier in the year by India’s former (thankfully!) external affairs minister, SM Krishna, who claimed that the trust deficit with Pakistan had been bridged. Both these statements are quite at variance with the assessment of the permanent establishment in New Delhi and the continuing hostile actions of the military-dominated establishment in Rawalpindi.

Notwithstanding the chasm of trust — which remains as wide as ever (and with good reason, at least from India’s standpoint) — engagement between the two countries has grown slightly wider, and deeper. Another round of the Composite Dialogue process was completed this year. There were some high-profile visits, including Pakistan President Asif Zardari’s pilgrimage to Ajmer and meetings between head honchos of the two countries on the sidelines of international conferences.

The horde of Track-II seminarists, meanwhile, remained active through the year, trying hard to sell their mostly half-baked proposals on conflict resolution to the two governments.

And a lot of needless excitement was generated over platitudes expressed by some top Pakistani officials. For instance, the Pakistan army chief’s remarks on the need for a peaceful solution to the Siachen issue, prime ministerial aspirant Nawaz Sharif calling for an abolition of the visa regime, and foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar asking the two countries not to be held hostage by history.

But there was also some tangible progress, notably in the spheres of trade and travel. The new liberalised visa regime will ease movement across the Radcliffe line for businessmen, divided families, senior citizens, group tourists etc. Equally significant has been the lifting of many trade restrictions by Pakistan. Having moved to a ‘negative trade list’ regime, Pakistan has held out the assurance of granting India most-favoured-nation status by the end of the year.

India has allowed Pakistani investment into the country, and talks on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and the sale of petroleum products to Pakistan have been proceeding apace. The two countries also extended the agreement on reducing risks from accidents relating to nuclear weapons.

It is, however, important to not overstate the impact of the easing of trade and travel restrictions. Neither is likely to be a game-changer. To put things in perspective, if trade with Pakistan grew by 100%, it would still constitute less than 1% of India’s total foreign trade.

Pakistan’s complaint that India hasn’t reciprocated on issues such as Siachen and Sir Creek despite Pakistan making concessions on trade doesn’t quite stand to reason either. True, India has always expressed a keenness for opening up trade relations. But this was more because trade was seen as an unexceptionable tool for deepening engagement, and not because Pakistan was some El-Dorado that would enrich India.

The truth is, India’s Pakistan policy is not part of some well-thought-out, elaborate design. Rather, it is based on a sort of parallel-track approach of exploring avenues where it can push the envelope (trade, for instance) to deepen engagement and learning to live with the problems on which it doesn’t expect to receive much satisfaction (terrorism).

The Pakistani approach is somewhat similar: keep the pot simmering where possible and allow engagement where necessary. In other words, keep the eastern front with India quiet so as to concentrate on the western front with Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, none of the metrics that would indicate a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s approach towards India are visible yet, even less so in light of the emergence of an allegedly ISI-backed Difa-e-Pakistan Council in which mullahs fulminate against India to pressure their government, and the horrible hounding of Hindus who are being forced to migrate across the border.

As a result, relations remain accident-prone and a single miscalculation could easily derail the still-fragile peace process. But, there is also a hope that if the process stays on track, it could reduce hostility and increase the space available for engagement, thereby changing the contours of the bilateral relations.

The coming year, which promises to be tumultuous because of elections in Pakistan, the endgame in Afghanistan shifting into higher gear, and a possible political slugfest in India ahead of the next general election, is unlikely to see any big breakthroughs. The best that can be expected is more of the same.

(Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, and Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation)

Pakistan is all for normalising relations

Talat Masood

Fortunately, during this year, India -Pakistan relations took a turn for the better. Pakistan had all along insisted that the territorial issues, especially the status of Jammu and Kashmir, had to be tackled first before trade and commercial links could be developed with India. And for that reason Islamabad had resisted since 1995 to grant India the MFN status. Pakistan’s recent decision to grant most favoured nation status to India is a major shift and could be the beginning of a new approach towards dealing with its neighbour.

Moreover, the new liberal visa regime between the two countries, if efficiently operationalised, will facilitate travel of businessmen and give a fillip to trade and investment. Immediate gains could be in lower prices and access to India’s relatively cheap raw materials.

The new visa regime will also allow people of both countries to travel as tourists, which is a major departure from the past. The exasperating travel restrictions of the past have been a serious impediment in their relations. These new measures have set the tone and tenor for a new beginning, even if these are first steps in a long and arduous journey.

On the flip side there is disappointment that India has failed to show any flexibility on the resolution of the Jammu & Kashmir issue and is taking a tougher line on its previous known position on issues of Siachen and Sir Creek. India’s position has hardened and continues to introduce new conditions or clauses giving an impression that settlement if any has to be on its terms.

New Delhi’s insistence on Pakistan to first show progress on the prosecution of the terrorists involved in the Mumbai attack is reminiscent of Pakistan previously insisting on “Kashmir first”. For India the default position is that terrorism has to be dealt first and every other issue will be contingent on it. True, in Pakistan there is not sufficient awareness how deep has been the scar of the Mumbai terrorist attack on the psyche of Indian public and slow progress on prosecuting the terrorists has played out negatively. But there are some genuine legal and political impediments in expediting the persecution of those involved in the incident. The reality is that Pakistan itself has been a victim of numerous terrorist attacks and the state has been unable to bring them to justice.

All the main political parties in Pakistan—Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the major provincial parties like Muttahida Quami Movement and Awami National Party are for good relations with India. Even the military, that had so far been opposed to rapprochement with India, is now for normalising relations. This broad consensus is somewhat unique and provides India an opportunity to move forward.

On the contrary the Indian state and society does not appear to be that forthcoming toward Pakistan.

The changed international and regional strategic environment has brought about a change in Pakistan’s establishment’s attitude toward India. Pakistan realises that its current threat is internal and not external. To cope with the serious internal insurgency requires peaceful borders and that is only possible if relations with India improve. Pakistan’s economy is in deep distress. Developing economic and trade relations with India will be mutually beneficial. For India, the greatest attraction is that if trade and commercial relations grow and Pakistan’s transit route opens up to Afghanistan and Central Asia, it will create new avenues and economic opportunities. Pakistan too will be a beneficiary from greater flow of transit trade between these countries.

Pakistan is also taking a leaf from the India-China and China- Japan economic and commercial relations. Despite their unresolved border issues and geostrategic rivalry the inter trade between these countries has been growing substantially to their mutual benefit. It only makes sense that Pakistan and India open up their borders for trade, commerce and cultural activities.

Certain apprehensions have been expressed that Indian subsidy to farmers can harm Pakistan’s agricultural community. On balance, however, the business community and the common people of Pakistan favour strong economic relations with India. There is also a societal push in Pakistan for better relations with India that has been largely created by the media and the civil society. It is interesting to note that the Diffa-Pakistan Council is agitating against trade with India but the people are not supporting it.

Pakistan expects that with improvement in relations, India would cease supporting the insurgency in Baluchistan.

In future, both India and Pakistan could play a constructive role in Afghanistan. They could cooperate in reconstruction activity and promote regional integration.

(Lieutenant General Talat Masood, is a now-retired three-star general and a career army engineer officer in the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers)