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False hopes

With the acceptance of formal invite from Pakistan, it appeared that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have visited Pakistan this month. It was supposed to be his final major diplomatic endeavor as Prime Minister.

But now with all scams under his leadership surfacing and may be due to the pressure from the high command the chances appears to be bleak. However at a personal level Manmohan Singh is still optimistic.

Though the motive behind this visit is to resume the long stalled composite dialogue between the two countries, the speculations are also high that Manmohan Singh is keen to visit the country as he was born in a village which is now part of West Punjab. 

The composite dialogue between India and Pakistan, which seeks to address the entire spectrum of hotspots in relations between the two rivals- from Siachen and Kashmir to economic cooperation and confidence building measures, was suspended in January 2013 after an Indian soldier was beheaded by Pakistani troops. Thereafter, the entire year was marred by various skirmishes along the troubled Indo-Pak border as a result of many ceasefire violations which hampered the prospects for improved bilateral relations.

Indeed, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 had already completely disillusioned any efforts to further bilateral ties, as much speculation within India derailed any attempts to move forward.

However, what became apparent amidst India’s anger and unanswered attempts to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice was that while dealing with Pakistan, one couldn’t sulk and stop communication, for even that wouldn’t change Pakistan’s stubborn yet delusional attitude towards India.

Thus, India has been left with very little room to maneuver its Pakistan policy the way it would like. But, even then, despite the heated debate about just how India should approach the Pakistan problem, it has successfully been proven that the way forward is only through open channels of communication, joint working mechanisms and increased trade ties.

Fortunately, India has some respite from a newly appointed government in Pakistan, which is progressive in its thinking and means business, making India hopeful of dialogue processes aimed at improving practical bilateral ties.

Importance of dialogue process

It is not new that occurrence of such crisis, be it terror attacks, terrorist infiltrations of ceasefire violations have interrupted the dialogue process between the two countries. India and Pakistan are also well aware that their ongoing issues make it impossible to rule out the occurrence of such crisis. Therefore, wisdom does not lie in disrupting talks over and over again. Rather, the nature of engagement should be strategically engineered so that at least the process of communication remains on track and is relatively insulated from such crisis.

This makes it important for India to determine how to deal with Pakistan. India is soundly aware that going to war with Pakistan will not solve anything. It has also experienced Pakistan’s stubbornness on numerous occasions. Diplomatically isolating Pakistan is also not an easy solution. Thus India must engage with Pakistan for its own strategic balance.

Once it is reasonably justified that talking to Pakistan is in India’s long term interest, the roadmap for bilateral communication should be established.

The two sides should simultaneously continue consolidating trade and cultural ties. The people-to-people contact between the countries can really transform the peace dialogue. India and Pakistan can immensely enhance their relations by increasing trade. Opening up routes and markets for investment could help them transform the entire region into an integrated economic bloc.

Not only will India gain from such an enterprise, it will also have a strategic edge over Pakistan, which it could use as a wild card during crisis situations. Pakistan too, would hopefully realize that such engagement is more fruitful than other nuances.

In this sense, the second edition of the ‘Made in India’ trade show that was held in Lahore last month, focused on warming trade ties. Trade, which was negligible between the two, has accelerated in the past decade, despite strains. Formal exchange of goods between India and Pakistan has accelerated from US $250 million in 2003 to US$2.6 billion in 2013.

In fact, the focus of the new government and especially PM Nawaz Sharif has been economic development. Having inherited an economy that was crippled by lack on investment, extremism and terrorism, energy crisis and currency de-evaluation, Nawaz Sharif rightly envisioned that talking business and economic development will be the only way forward for Pakistan.

More importantly however, Pakistan now wants to move away from the image it has maintained for some time-the image of a ‘terrorist hub’. It no longer wants to associate itself with this image because it realizes that sponsoring terrorism is harming them more than the harm they intent to inflict on others. This is why in 2013, Pakistan suffered more attacks than any of the hotspots, including Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan.

While attempting to de-hyphenate itself from the traditional tag of being a safe haven for terrorism and from where state sponsored terrorism is rampant, PM Nawaz Sharif is fully employing his business background to focus on economic development. He rightly realizes that the mentioned tags are taking the future of Pakistan in another direction than what was imagined.

Therefore, if Pakistan needs to be recognized as a favorable country to do business with, it must push the agenda of economic development which will refurbish its image domestically, regionally and globally.

Clearly, PM Nawaz Sharif has a plan. He is systematically moving in a direction, consolidating his efforts to achieve a situation wherein his government emerges successful and clean off of their negative past.

He is avidly undertaking trips to foreign countries to attract as much trade and investment as he can. He has also initiated the discussion for cross-border trade with India. Coming from a business background, he has indeed employed a heavy bargain on the aspect of business.

Civil-military relations

Another problem that has been an unprecedented hindrance in Indo-Pak bilateral relations moving forward is the heavy-hand of the military. When it comes to Pakistan, three issues concern India- Kashmir, support to terror groups that perpetrate terrorism against India and the management of its nuclear capabilities. Until now, all these three have been beyond the control of the civilian government and the military has had no intentions of giving up its interests where India is concerned.

General Kayani used to blatantly state that the ISI is an ‘India-Centric’ institution, which remained a sticky point for India as its neighbor’s successful democratic transition didn’t mean an end to the military’s role in security and foreign affairs no matter how pro-Indian the civilian leader may have been.

In fact, it was during Nawaz Sharif’s term as Prime Minister fourteen years ago that while on one hand the civilian government initiated the process of normalizing ties with India, the Pakistani military positioned its troops along the LAC resulting in the Kargil War. More recently, the role of the ISI in the Mumbai terror attacks is undeniable. Therefore, this increased India’s need to invest strongly in diplomatic ties with the civilian government, which would decrease the importance credited to the ISI.

But unless the new government would not redistribute power in a manner that would establish its own supremacy incapable of being challenged, India would have had a bigger reason to worry.

Sharif indeed proved to be the right man for the job as having experienced a military coup himself, he realized that he needs to appoint someone who would be inclined to perform the duties of the military from a purely militaristic perspective and not indulge in civilian politics and foreign policy.

Therefore, after intense speculation, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed Lt Gen Raheel Sharif as the new Chief of Army Staff (CoAS). He indeed reached the decision after carefully considering crucial factors, keeping in mind the political history of Pakistan and his own personal experience. As the army is as good as a power center of the country, the appointment of its new Chief is significant. He has not only brought a thinking man as the Army Chief, he has also smartly retained the foreign ministry portfolio with himself and appointed a national security advisor.

The idea seems to be that focusing on economic development will ensure a positive reaction from the people of Pakistan and also considerably limit the Pakistan Army’s interference in political matters. Until now, the army was actively engaged with the working of the civilian leadership because it was a major tool for the country’s foreign and economic policy. With the new agenda, this will not be the case as the military will not have much role in economically focused matters like infrastructure development and energy security.

Opportunities

What the Indian government can look forward to without much worry is the increase in economic and trade ties with Pakistan. Sharif favors liberal economic policies and he sees the revival of the country’s economy in increasing trade with its neighbors, particularly India and China. His pro-business outlook will ensure that the military doesn’t interfere in economic ties with India. However, China may pose a problem since it has vested interest in maintaining instability between India and Pakistan.

Keeping communication channels open is the only way the two can negotiate their crisis-ridden issues and it is important that the talks have a roadmap without which, they may be futile. The key is to take small steps towards resolution of disputes, starting from less sensitive issues like trade and water-sharing mechanisms and gradually proceeding to more serious issues like LoC violations and terrorism. Good diplomacy means meaningful engagement while detachment could make matters worse.

It must be realized that the geographical necessity and historical legacy is such that despite Pakistan’s shameful nuances, India cannot and must not develop a hostile front, for that can backfire amidst such uncertain geopolitical realities. In addition, if Pakistan doesn’t get its way, it usually ends up resorting to violent tactics, which is not something India can afford now.  

India can create the image of a responsible regional leader by enhancing regional trade through maintaining bilateral and economic relations with Pakistan. Not only will this bring goodwill for India, India can use this as a bargaining chip against Pakistan, if required.

Secondly, with US withdrawing later this year from Afghanistan, India and Pakistan will step up their activities in the region, for which, India must flex all its economic and strategic muscle to gain an edge over Pakistan in the region. India also needs to safeguard itself from the upcoming Pakistan-China nexus and engaging Pakistan constructively is the only way to mitigate a possible threat from that end.

Since there is an impending election in India, it will all depend on the new government as how to carry forward the relationship with Pakistan.