Arguing that multiple constituencies have come together seeking normalisation of ties with India, Pakistani civil society leaders have urged India to see their country as ‘work in progress’, and take the ‘long-term view’ on contentious issues. This was their key message at an unofficial India-Pakistan meeting organised by the New America Foundation, a Washington DC think-tank headed by author and journalist Steve Coll, in Dubai last week. Participants included journalists, academics, entrepreneurs and business executives from both sides.

Najam Sethi, Editor-in-Chief of The Friday Times of Lahore, told the gathering that there was a fundamental shift in Pakistan’s stance, with an ‘across-the board’ consensus about the need for better relations. “The establishment has come a long way from the core issue approach – of dealing with Kashmir as core dispute to treating it as outstanding problem to looking for an out-of-the-box solution to now freezing it and pushing it off the radar screen.” With Pakistan having abandoned its traditional stance, he suggested it was time for India not to ‘harp on terrorism’. “We have closed the tap on jehad.”

Questioned about the attitude of the military and intelligence components of the government, Mr. Sethi said that several factors had forced the Pakistani military to reassess what had gone wrong – the long-term failure of the economy; the fact that they could not count on US support for any intervention and Pakistan would become a ‘far-away blip’ for US soon; the emergence of a strong media and judiciary; and the consensus among political actors, including the opposition to allow for democratic transition. “The military now needs and wants civilian ownership for key measures. Top political leaders including President Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, all business chambers, civil society seek better ties with India. It is time for Indian civil society to question their own state’s narrative of national security and push for better ties.”

Strategic or tactical?

While lauding the democratic transition in Pakistan, Indian delegates pointed out that terrorism would remain a ‘touchy issue’, and expressed skepticism about whether the shift in Pakistan was ‘strategic or tactical’. Explaining the role of the electronic media in ratcheting up the pressure on government, a senior television editor pointed out that similar incidents in the past – of ceasefire violations, straying of helicopters and soldiers – had been brushed under the carpet. “But in the recent instance, within 90 minutes of the incident, information was on my twitter timeline. Governments have to learn to cope with rapid information flows, media hype and jingoism.”

Trade boost

Presenting a paper on trade dynamics, Nisha Taneja of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) highlighted how from 2004, trade and political issues were delinked and a process of normalisation commenced, including trade across the Line of Control in 2008. The game-changer was in November 2011, when Pakistan agreed to move towards granting India MFN status, by first moving from a positive to a negative list of items banned rather than permitted, and then phasing out the negative list.

Her research findings suggested trade potential between the two countries is between USD 20-30 billion, while current trade is less than USD 2 billion. Items with largest export potential from India to Pakistan include machineries, mechanical appliances and electrical equipment, and chemicals and textiles. Textile, jewellery, precious metals and base metals have the highest import potential from Pakistan. “In Pakistan, the automobile sector is protected while India fears textile imports – where Pakistan enjoys a comparative advantage.”

To realise the actual trade potential, Ms. Taneja emphasised that several issues – gaps in physical infrastructure, transport protocols, transit rights, non-tariff barriers, ‘perceived barriers’ in accessing each other’s markets, foreign investment flows, liberalisation of visas – would need to be addressed.