Understanding the thaw

India-Pakistan relations have reached a historic turning point that neither country can afford to miss

June 12, 2012 12:18 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:12 pm IST



At long last the ice in which India-Pakistan relations have been locked is beginning to melt. Pakistan has granted Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India's exports, bringing nearly 6,000 items onto the regular list of permissible imports. India is hastening to remove a host of non-tariff barriers to Pakistan's exports: a Joint India-Pakistan committee is even now pruning the forest of regulations enacted by 24 Indian standards organisations that had become India's answer to Pakistan's denial of MFN.

Pakistan began to buy petroleum products from India in March and is eyeing the purchase of 500 MW of power to feed its industries. Last month, 600 Pakistani businessmen visited a trade fair in Delhi to sell their products, and earlier this month India lifted its ban on Direct Foreign Investment from Pakistan. Sensing the birth of a new market, Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal announced the commissioning of an oil refinery at Bhatinda, not far from the Pakistan border. Indian investment to generate power from the Thar coalfields in collaboration with Pakistani and other enterprises could be the next step. In the past 64 years there had been only one visit by a Pakistani commerce minister to India and none by his Indian counterpart to Pakistan. Since last September, the two have met four times in seven months.

The thaw is evident in our political relations as well. It was set off by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's spur-of-the-moment invitation to President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani to attend the India-Pakistan World Cup semi-final cricket match at Mohali. This year, when President Zardari invited himself to lunch with Dr. Singh while on his way to Ajmer, instead of being pelted with brickbats at home, he was showered with bouquets. Mian Nawaz Sharif, the head of the PML(N), not only applauded Mr. Zardari's initiative but supported what he termed the promotion of ties with India “in a positive way.”

The most significant endorsement came, however, from the Pakistan Army Chief, General Kayani, who remarked while visiting victims of the Skardu earthquake a week later that “peaceful coexistence between the two neighbours is very important so that everybody can concentrate on the well-being of the people…… The decades of enmity between India and Pakistan should be resolved through negotiation.”

Call for help

Is the change of heart in Pakistan's ruling elite genuine? B. Raman, the noted Chennai-based security analyst thinks not, and sees only another attempt to mount international pressure on India to de-militarise Siachen. The logic behind his reasoning is hard to discern for Siachen is the least of the international community's present concerns and Pakistan is not exactly in its good books at the moment. But there are a score of other reasons for India to mistrust Pakistani intentions — from the mindset of its army, to the fragility of its besieged democracy, to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)'s constant protection of its home-grown terrorists.

All these, however are reasons for caution, not inaction. India-Pakistan relations have reached a historic turning point where India's most inveterate enemy is asking India for not just help but trust. This is a turning we must not miss.

Pakistan is turning to India because its very survival as a modern state is now in jeopardy. It was partly forced, partly lured into America's War on Terror in Afghanistan. In the eyes of its people, it has been used by the U.S. and NATO like a dirty dishrag, and is now about to be casually thrown away as they prepare for their exit from Afghanistan. And it has nowhere else to turn.

The steep deterioration in its relations with the U.S. during the past 18 months makes it virtually certain that it will lose all military and most of the economic aid it is receiving from the U.S. Without this, Pakistan will not be able to service its external debt and its economy will collapse.

The Pakistan Army is feeling equally betrayed. When George Bush's attention wandered away from Afghanistan to Iraq, it realised that the war in Aghanistan would be prolonged and would probably end in failure. This would leave Pakistan to face the full wrath of the victorious Taliban and its al-Qaeda linked associates within Pakistan. It therefore took out one, possibly two, insurance policies: the first was the creation of a sanctum within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for the Haqqani network of Islamist fighters; the second was to give sanctuary to protect Osama bin Laden. The Pakistan Army had intended to use both as powerful political tools to extend its sway over Afghanistan after the U.S. and NATO left, but its strategy collapsed when, after dismissing Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2010, President Obama decided to strengthen the Karzai government and allow his forces to enter Pakistani airspace with drones to attack the Haqqanis in North Waziristan.

When the succession of events in 2011 — CIA operator Raymond Davis' killing of two ISI shadowers in January, the killing of bin Laden in May, and the U.S.' inadvertent killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers inside Pakistan territory in November brought peoples' anger to fever pitch but failed to elicit an apology from Mr. Obama, and when Pakistan's northern neighbours rushed in to fill the supply gap left by Pakistan's closure of its supply routes from Karachi, the Army too realised that Pakistan was truly alone.

Even then the change of direction has not come easily. The Army's reaction to the U.S. turnabout in 2010-11, was to insist upon going it alone. To do this it was prepared to keep the supply lines closed, continue supporting the Haqqanis, and help them to retaliate against the U.S. drone attacks by stepping up their attacks on high profile U.S. and NATO targets in Afghanistan.

Trade issues

This is where the Army and the Zardari government seem to have parted ways. For Mr. Zardari and Mr. Gilani saw that this would further deepen Pakistan's isolation and hasten its economic ruin. Only a very high level of tension between the government and the Army can explain the bizarre drama that followed — with Pakistan Ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, dictating an unsigned memo to the U.S. Army Chief warning of an imminent army coup in Pakistan, to the one man, Mansur Ijaz who, he must have known, would take it straight to the ISI. The Army attempted to use the memo to discredit the government in Pakistan but the hostile public reaction to the very idea of a military coup, and its subsequent failure to get the Supreme Court to oust Mr. Zardari and imprison Mr. Gilani, showed the Army that the days of military rule were over. It could determine security policy, but only as part of a democratic government. It is this little noticed victory for democracy within Pakistan that has opened the portals for a rapprochement with India.

How far the rapprochement goes will depend on the sagacity of the leaders, especially ours. While Pakistan's foreign exchange outgo will actually drop when smuggling, and third party trade through Dubai is replaced by direct, legitimate trade, the imbalance between Pakistan's exports to and imports from India will appear even larger than it does today. New Delhi would therefore do well to think of ways in which to reduce this apparent gap lest it become fodder for the hate-India lobby in Pakistan. The least that is required is a rapid dismantling of India's non-trade barriers against Pakistan, but New Delhi would do well to consider lifting restrictions on the imports to textiles, which make up three fifths of Pakistan's exports, as well as cement and light engineering goods, as part of its commitments under the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA).

In its own best interests, Pakistan would do well to reciprocate by granting India the transit rights to central Asia that it has long been requesting. The transit fees on this trade alone would go a long way towards bridging Pakistan's balance of payments deficit. A speedy implementation of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Gas Pipeline Project followed, hopefully, by one to Iran would meet Pakistan's foreign exchange and energy needs while giving India its much needed access to central Asia's energy supplies.

But the rapprochement will remain incomplete and fragile if it does not address the political and security concerns of the two countries. The thaw in fact began only after the two countries decided not to let the punishment of the terrorists of 26/11 and Kashmir stand in the way of resuming the search for peace. This search requires us to assuage the Pakistan Army's fear that India's quest for influence in Afghanistan is aimed at maintaining the capacity to present it with a hostile neighbour to its west. A quiet reassurance that India supports the continuation of the Durand line as an approximate border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and an offer to coordinate our aid to Kabul with Pakistan's, would go a long way towards doing so.

Some in India may be inclined to gloat over Pakistan's discomfiture and regard its overtures to India as a form of Indian victory. This would not only be unwise but short-sighted. Pakistan has approached India because it knows that a stable, even if sometimes fractious, Pakistan is essential to India's own security. An improvement in its security and a strengthening of its democracy will serve the interests of both. Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, has frequently mentioned the need for trust. But what she has actually implied is that a measure of trust is essential for both countries to better understand where their true interests lie.

(The writer is a senior journalist.)

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