To an optimist, the last few weeks have been the most progressive times in the Indo-Pak relations since the diplomatic freeze that ensued after the Mumbai attacks in 2008. First, Pakistan has decided to confer the ‘Most Favoured Nation’ or MFN status to India, which interestingly India had bestowed upon Pakistan in 1996.1 Earlier, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani cited India’s vote for Pakistan in the UN Security council, albeit undeclared, as an example of his country’s successful “foreign policy.”2 Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UN, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, went on to state that "many of the countries that Pakistan had considered as friends were no longer friends of the country. But India supported us [...]”3
A few days ago, an Indian chopper (Cheetah) which strayed into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) was sent back swiftly without much chest-beating by Islamabad after a basic and cordial diplomatic exchange.4 In the recently concluded SAARC Summit in Maldives, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar underlined that her country wanted to “mend the trust deficit with India”5 and held bilateral talks on the sidelines.
Then there was a declaration of intent to send a Pakistani judicial mission to India to probe the 2008 Mumbai attacks carried out by Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), a terror outfit operating from across the border.6 Islamabad, three years since the attack, is accepting a longstanding demand from New Delhi in principle but not etching out any specifics. In a relationship which is clouded by negatives, the recent positives are a welcome step, but not guarantees of peace dividends.
The efforts could be read at face value as a genuine build up for normalising of ties as promised after the much publicised meeting of the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers in New Delhi in July 2011. However, jaded by the history of this problematic relationship, most analysts would point at the timing and the context of the “reciprocity” from Pakistan.
Not so long ago, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had warned Pakistan to “crush terror havens or pay a very big price.”7 Pakistan’s “twin”, Afghanistan, too has been venting on sibling trouble. President Hamid Karzai publicly slammed Islamabad for supporting the Taliban and hurting peace efforts in its quest to secure influence inside Afghanistan.8 In fact, Afghanistan went ahead and signed a strategic partnership with India which included building Afghanistan’s security capacities and preparing it for withdrawal of international forces.9 Peeved Pakistani Generals even issued a statement saying “We have not yet been included in any decision for a reconciliation roadmap for Afghanistan.”10
It was particularly interesting to hear an Afghan participant at the 5th South Asia Conference held at IDSA speaking of how Afghanistan would be looking at ways to deal directly with India if Pakistan were to play spoilsport. The scholar called it Pakistan’s “political psychological paranoia” of any relationship cultivated by India in the region.11
The feeling in strategic circles in India is that the establishment in Islamabad, both civilian and military, are in a quandary over the changes in the regional environment with US and Afghanistan now becoming more vocal and demanding, and China only offering support in the shadows. In such a situation, troubled relations simultaneously on its eastern and western borders may not be the best strategy for Pakistan; therefore, the idea of engaging India was agreed upon.
A glance at the editorials in leading Pakistani dailies reflects this growing realisation. There has been an attempt to justify the policy of warming up to India as a unified decision taken by Pakistan’s civilian leadership with full support of its military bosses. The deliberations on granting the MFN status to India have been analysed as intrinsically beneficial to the dwindling coffers of a state which has spawned and battled the worst form of fundamental terrorism in contemporary history. Pakistan reaffirmed its commitment to India saying “the army was a stakeholder in dialogue with India on the MFN issue.”12
In the new arrangement, the current lowly figures of bilateral trade which stands at $2.65 billion are expected to jump to $8 billion in the next 5 years.13 India has promised to waive off non-trade barriers and lift ban on import items to promote the thaw in relations. New Delhi has also offered not to block Pakistan’s bid at entering the European market despite its earlier reservations.14
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has come under a lot of fire from the Opposition on the recent peace overtures to Pakistan has also drawn lessons from the Sharm-el-Sheikh fiasco of 2008. While calling Pakistan Prime Minister Gillani a “man of peace”, he has clarified that “our approach to Pakistan is trust but verify. We are not putting blind faith in one individual.”15
The scepticism over Pakistan granting MFN status, many would argue, is justified. During the commerce secretary level talks from November 14-16, India had to clarify the exact nature of the declaration of MFN status conferred upon it by Pakistan since in the fine print Islamabad has been saying that “normalisation of trade and economic ties will lead eventually to granting of the status.”16 Moreover, critics argue that even if the agreement holds up, the infrastructure support required in terms of trading routes, banking etc has to be built up from scratch to reap the benefits of the ‘MFN’ status. Then there is always a lurking danger on the future of such investments as they may be held hostage to the unpredictable bilateral environment.
It is also imperative to note that while Pakistan wants to talk peace, it has still not listed the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), the front organisation for LeT, in the group of 31 banned extremist and terrorist groups released by its interior ministry.17 The JuD chief, Hafiz Saeed, accused by New Delhi to be the mastermind behind the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks continues to roam freely in Islamabad, and has been “vowing Jihad against India”18 despite repeated requests by India for action against him. Even the commitment of sending a judicial commission to India to investigate is only a declaration of intent.
Intentions can change with motivations. Today it’s in Pakistan’s interest to extend the olive branch to India. While we extend our hand, New Delhi must ensure that it doesn’t burn its fingers. The peace dividend will come, but in fits and starts, and with no guarantees.