Irrational exuberance instead of cold, calculated, and hard-headed analysis; a tendency to attribute greater importance to unsubstantiated statements professing a desire for peace and good neighbourly relations instead of substantial actions that would bear out these pious sentiments; evaluating situations and circumstances on the basis of wishful thinking about the motives and motivation of the other side; a touching faith on personalities and their seemingly changing attitudes rather than keeping an eye on whether or not there is a change in paradigms; and imagining reality instead of appreciating and understanding it—this, in short, is the sum and substance of what goes into the making of India’s Pakistan policy, if not at the official level then at least at the political and ‘intellectual’ levels.
Not surprisingly, India routinely—after every couple of months and sometimes couple of years—suffers ‘peace’ paroxysms, which result in the same mistakes being repeated simply because the same (il)logic repeats itself over and over again. With the silly season of Indo-Pak peacemaking having descended once again, it is hard not to wonder whether Einstein had India’s approach towards Pakistan in mind when he defined insanity (or was it stupidity?) as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result every time’!
The latest love-fest between India and Pakistan has been a couple of months in the making. While the ‘Thimphu Spirit’ of February 2011 led to an official level re-engagement with Pakistan, it got a major push when the ‘usual suspects’—the professional Track-II seminarists—started to once again gush about the changing mood inside Pakistan. The big ‘breakthrough’ came during the trade talks between the two countries. With India setting the stage by withdrawing its objections to the trade concessions given to Pakistan by the European Union, the Pakistanis reciprocated by offering to open trade with India and move towards granting India MFN status. The first significant step in this direction was replacing the positive list of tradeable items with the negative list (allowing trade in around 6000 items), which the Pakistanis have assured would be gradually pared down by the end of the year to give MFN status to India. This, in the words of President Asif Zardari, is a sign of a ‘paradigmatic change’ in Pakistan’s policy towards India.
To the extent that the opening of trade has created a sense of euphoria (perhaps misplaced) and has enthused the business lobbies in both countries, it can be termed as a major positive step. But while the opening of trade is ostensibly a sign of economic realism in Pakistan, it is important not to overstate its importance as a ‘game-changer’ in the Indo-Pak context, even less so in light of the evolving strategic and security situation in the region. The most optimistic estimates expect the quantum of bilateral trade to rise from the current around US $ 2.5 billion to around $ 10 billion in the next couple of years. Even though India is likely to enjoy a relatively big trade surplus (by some accounts almost around $ 5 billion), in terms of India’s overall trade profile—exports of around $ 250 billion and imports of around $ 370 billion—this will be a marginal amount. In other words, for India, trade with Pakistan has more political value than economic value. For Pakistan, the converse is true. This means that while Pakistan is trying to project the opening of trade with India as a big concession from its side, it is more of a concession that Pakistan has given itself rather than to India because in relative terms Pakistan stands to gain a lot more than India from this move. And this is really the big disconnect that often gets ignored in the debate on opening of trade with Pakistan. Given that the driving force on trade for both sides is so different, chances are that they are both going to be left unsatisfied (at least at the national level if not at the level of individuals) with the outcome of trade.
Quite beside the problem of trade imbalance that will add yet another point of friction in bilateral relations, the fact remains that the full potential of bilateral trade will not be realised until trust and confidence develop to a point where travel and investment become a lot easier than at present. In any case, India’s hope of making a political breakthrough on the back of trade is, to say the least, unrealistic. Trade can play a major role between countries only if the standpoints of rationality on both sides are the same and political relations are either subservient to, or move in tandem with, economic relations. But if the people of a country (in this case Pakistan) place the economy on a very low priority as compared to politics, then trade can never become a game-changer. Before India gets carried away by the exciting prospects of trade and economics driving relations with Pakistan, it would do well to keep the US experience with Pakistan before it. Despite the US being the largest donor of economic and military aid, one of the largest trading partners, and among the largest source of remittances, all these haven’t stopped Pakistan from taking relations with the US to breakpoint. And if this is how the Pakistanis treat the US, what chance does India have?
Actually, one of the factors that has prompted Pakistan to open trade with India is its deteriorating relations with the US and the West. At a strategic level, Pakistan cannot afford to allow the eastern front with India to heat up at a time when its western front is so unsettled. At the economic level, Pakistan is seeking to diversify its trading relations to reduce its dependence on the West so that if matters do reach the breakpoint, it will have alternatives available. In other words, it isn’t so much that the Pakistanis have suddenly had a change of heart towards India; it is more that compulsions have made the military establishment allow the opening of trade with India. But this confronts India with serious dilemmas. For one, if Pakistan becomes an international pariah in the next couple of years and is subjected to either unilateral or even multilateral sanctions—a very real possibility—will India want to once again end up on the wrong side by seen to be dealing with such a country? Also, while many in India are eagerly anticipating transit rights through Pakistan to Afghanistan and beyond, the benefits of this are rather iffy. Pray, what pot of gold awaits India in Afghanistan, which is likely to be either ruled by the barbaric Taliban or descend into a bloody civil war? And while for the past two decades one has heard a lot of the potential of the Central Asian States, this seems to be more of a myth than reality. In any case, if Pakistan grants India transit rights and demands reciprocal rights to access Nepal and Bangladesh and beyond, how will the Indian state respond?
Apart from the ‘breakthrough’ on trade, recent statements from top Pakistani officials have also enthused the ‘embrace Pakistan’ lobby in India. While President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani and Foreign Minister Rabbani Khar have been making all the right noises on engaging India, it is really the remarks of the Army Chief General Kayani that have got people in India excited. This is quite surprising because Kayani’s remarks, made on two separate occasions at Gayari in the Siachen sector, are nothing more than the standard Pakistan foreign office line. The novelty factor in these remarks is really that instead of the foreign office mouthing the army’s line, this time the army is mouthing the foreign office line. Aside from the circumstances in which these remarks were made—Pakistan was in mourning over the wiping out of an entire battalion by an avalanche and a lively debate on the futility of the conflict over Siachen and the need for settling it had erupted in the country and for the army chief to indulge in unnecessary tough talk or war-mongering would have been highly unseemly and inappropriate both domestically as well as diplomatically—no new ground was broken by Kayani that would lead to a resolution of the issue. Pakistan continues to claim the entire territory which, as part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, legally belongs to India. Equally important, Pakistan refuses to either authenticate, much less delineate the LoC, in this sector, which leaves open the possibility of Pakistani intrusions into the area in the future. If Pakistan were to accept India’s very reasonable proposals, a deal can be worked out in no time. Otherwise, the two sides can continue to talk till the cows come home.
A degree of importance is being attached to Kayani’s remarks also because these come on the back of efforts by the Pakistan army to project a reasonable face to India. In recent months, the Pakistan army has been opening itself to India by engaging Indian journalists, think-tanks, and policy analysts. Conducted tours of certain hotspots like Swat, granting access to an Indian journalist to Gayari to observe the rescue and recovery operations there, arranging meetings between top ISI officials and visiting Indian media personnel, are all examples of this new policy. But serious questions remain about whether this is a sign of a strategic shift or a paradigm change in how the Pakistan army views India or is it merely a tactical move? The evidence from the ground doesn't give much cause for optimism—hostile propaganda against India on the issue of water as well as its purported support for Islamist and Baloch insurgents continue unabated, terror groups like the Jamaatud Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Harkatul Mujahedin etc. are still being used as a pressure tool, inimical actions against the Indian presence and role in Afghanistan show no sign of ending, and the infrastructure for demonising India and indoctrinating young Pakistanis against India remains intact.
India has in the past always put a lot of store on individual rulers and invariably regretted having done so. When Pervez Musharraf was ruling the roost, his overtures to India were seen as a game-changer. But clearly, these were initiatives of an individual who after being a jihadist general started to see the light of the day and moderated his stand. The institution he belonged to went along with him only as long as he was the boss. No sooner did he doff his uniform, the Pakistan army reverted to its old anti-India line and Ashfaq Kayani was touted as one of the most rabid India-baiters ever to head the army. If he has now started realising his folly, what is the certainty that his successors will not do what he did when he became army chief. In other words, asides of some cosmetic gestures, what is the evidence that the Pakistan army at an institutional level has started to make the shift towards accepting ‘peaceful coexistence with neighbours’ (to use Kayani’s words) as an article of faith? If one were to go by the information and intelligence gathered by Indian security agencies, then there has been absolutely no change either in the Pakistani mindset or in the Pakistani policy framework; a prime example of this is Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan where it is supporting the Taliban as a counter against Indian influence. Now either the Indian security agencies are misleading the nation (in which case they must be taken to task) or else India is once again embracing Pakistan with its eyes wide open and its brains completely shut.
All this is not to suggest that India should not engage with Pakistan. Far from it, India cannot afford to ignore its neighbourhood. At the same time, instead of taking leave of its senses every time someone from across the border coos sweet nothings (the pun is intended), India needs to set metrics by which it will judge Pakistan and then take steps to reciprocate any positive measures from the other side.