India and Pakistan: Trading without trade offs

Updated: April 05, 2021 11:07 AM

The basic problem between India and Pakistan is the excessive verbosity displayed even when a small step is taken either to normalise the relations or to curtail them.

imran khanPM Modi in keeping with utmost civility expressed his concern and best wishes for speedy recovery when the reports of PM Imran Khan contracting Covid -19 emerged. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Amb Anil Trigunayat, 

The basic problem between India and Pakistan is the excessive verbosity displayed even when a small step is taken either to normalise the relations or to curtail them. This is exactly what happened when Pakistan earlier decided to allow the imports of Indian Sugar, Cotton and cotton yarn through land and sea borders after these were suspended in 2019 due to the bilateral relationship hitting the bottom. But days later the decision of the ECC, which may not have decided without PM Imran Khan approving the import deal, was overturned in the Cabinet meeting, which he himself presided over. It is evident that while the earlier decision was taken on the ground of economic necessity the latter followed as an afterthought since it seemed to have given an imaginary PR edge to the arch-rival India. Hence the change in mind was couched in the standard traditional pastime and fixation called “J&K” . This time the initiative was called off until India rescinds its Art 370 abrogation of 2019. That ship has sailed. Well that’s not happening so we shall continue to witness the “Kaikeyi in Kopgrah “ like attitude and the hardliners on both sides will again have the last laugh and the relationship could remain accident prone as in the past.

While there has been a lot of informed and uninformed media commentary in India and Pakistan and elsewhere on this “flip-flop’ by PM Imran Khan’s government Indian spokesman Arindam Bagchi in his maiden press briefing smartly waived off the question by stating that “ we are not the right party you should be addressing your question to “. For India it was good to have but not needed to have. Optics could have worked as a CBM.

A study conducted by Afaq Hussain and Nikita Singla “Unilateral Decisions Bilateral Losses” has elaborated on the loss of opportunity cost on account of LoC Trade suspension, MFN withdrawal and duty hikes and airspace closure due to the tense state of affairs between Delhi and Islamabad. It states that Indo-Pak cross border trade during 2008-19 amounted to over Rs 7500 Crores and it generated more than 170000 new jobs on both sides in the border areas that often witness indiscriminate shelling, clearly confirming the peace dividends. It further concludes that while the direct bilateral trade has hovered around $ 2.6 bn the potential could exceed $ 37 bn which will be mutually beneficial given the geographical interdependency of industry and raw materials on both sides. It is a known fact that while gypsum and cement and rock salt provide an edge to Pakistan in the sugar and cotton yarn and pharmaceuticals India has a definite edge and can meet Islamabad’s requirements easily and competitively. While SAARC has remained stunted due to the region defeating politics SAFTA arrangements have carried on. Besides Indian PM’s efforts to still garner the support of SAARC leaders in a joint fight against the Covid 19 and sharing of vaccines as well as to create region wide mechanisms in South Asia are instructive that countries in the region can work together when confronted with a calamity. When we talk of global solidarity all countries in the region are the primary and integral part of the chain. Let us not forget that pandemic and terrorism know no boundaries hence a joint and sincere fight against them is a prerequisite.

Much more could be done if things were normal. However, P2P connect, cultural exchanges including lifting of bans on films and artists , humanitarian and medical assistance , religious pilgrimage , sports and cricket and disaster management should be given a priority at all times as they have the potential to bridge the political gaps. As such the two countries have regularly exchanged lists of prisoners and nuclear installations and most recently worked on Kartarpur Sahib corridor as well as water sharing dialogue irrespective of the state of bilateral relations.

In recent times after partial relaxation of the Sino-Indian standoff and under pressure and persuasion from several of their friends in the Gulf and the West, Pakistani civil and military leaders have made some reasonable statements that tend to indicate that some form of thaw and formal dialogue between Delhi and Islamabad was likely. Joint Statement upholding the 2003 ceasefire agreement was a welcome development. General Bajwa reportedly wants to bury the past and has been quite vocal stating that Pakistan is ready to ‘improve our environment by resolving all our outstanding issues with our neighbours through dialogue in a dignified and peaceful manner. Stable Indo-Pak relation is a key to unlock the untapped potential of South and Central Asia by ensuring connectivity between East and West Asia’. So very true! But unofficial Dialogue Tracks have a lot of ground to cover.

PM Modi in keeping with utmost civility expressed his concern and best wishes for speedy recovery when the reports of PM Imran Khan contracting Covid -19 emerged. He also felicitated the people of Pakistan on the Pakistan Day in a letter to his counterpart. PM Imran Khan also responded thanking the Indian PM for the greetings but predicating peace and dialogue on resolution of several issues including J&K. Nothing new in that as bilateral institutional mechanisms have already been set up years ago providing for discussions on all issues in accordance with the Shimla Accord and Lahore Declaration, among others. However, since Islamabad refused to take any credible action against terrorist groups operating against India from its soil and has not given up its policy of supporting and sponsoring Jihadi outfits indulging in cross border terrorism India insisted that “Talks and Terror “cannot continue and that remains the defining line. How would the two align geo-economics with security concerns remains to be seen?

The two sides have stuck to their inflexible positions hence the futility of dialogue is obvious. But there is always some grey in the shades of black and white. It was surmised that the two Foreign Ministers or their senior officials might meet in Dushanbe on the side-lines of the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan. It is not uncommon to have pull asides during multilateral conferences and has happened at the highest level earlier. But this time as per the MEA spokesman no meetings were held as far as he knew. Pakistani FM Qureshi got away on the high ground with “If India takes one step, we shall take two.” Some argue that since no talks happened Pakistan had to show its displeasure by overturning the decision to import commodities from India which was seen as a Confidence Building Measure (CBM) even if it was cast in necessity for the domestic needs of people and industry. But the predicament of Indian side is what if once again the Pakistani deep state resorts to another terrorist attack, like in the past as soon as some peace overtures are manifested or materialised. And the domestic debates in a democracy have their own dynamic especially when the ruling establishment is seen or shown to be indulging in vain and vile efforts to normalise relations knowing too well that it might not lead anywhere. Well, that is a lame argument since even Kaikeyi had to break her silence but by extracting her pound of flesh. Would Pakistan deliver on terrorism? Does it have the capacity or intent – unlikely and doubtful? What is the point in having a dialogue when trade-offs are indefensible and egregious – you still try? While bilateral negotiation are absolutely a given, Pakistan’s iron clad friend China, new found friend Russia and erstwhile friend USA and ofcourse its peeved benefactors from the Gulf could get of the limited geo-political mould and compel the politico-military establishment to desist from policy of state sponsored terrorism because several of them not only know but have often shared intelligence about the terror camps with India. India’s sole concern is this and it should also remind Pakistan about the “Bhasmasur “story when it rants about being a victim of terrorism itself. Hope the peace and dialogue between the two neighbours, who are a gift of geography and colonialism, will prevail for the larger good of people across the divide. What do you do with the spoilers is for each country to decide.

(The author is Former Ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Libya and Malta. He can be reached at amb.trigunayat@gmail.com Twitter: @aniltrigunayat. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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