Exercise caution in dealing with Pakistan

Normalisation of relationship with Pakistan must also yield tangible benefits to India

Over the last few months, there has been substantial momentum in engagement between India and Pakistan. Visa regimes have been liberalised and a Joint Business Council has been established, involving business leaders of both the countries. The newly inaugurated check post at Attari provides another avenue for trade between the two countries and Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari even hosted a Diwali dinner for the visiting chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar.

Given these developments, one could be persuaded to thinking that Pakistan’s antagonism towards India has decreased, thus behooving India to be more accommodating of Pakistan.  There are suggestions that India can further gain Pakistan’s confidence through an official visit by prime minister, Manmohan Singh, or by being more conciliatory on border or territorial issues.  Supporters of such narratives argue that India and Pakistan can gradually build on each other’s trust through trade. Indeed, some in India already see Pakistan’s acquiescence to discussing trade, independent of its stated “core issue” of Kashmir, as a sign of a changing mindset in Pakistan.

However, before a case can be made for benevolence towards Pakistan, a closer examination of Pakistan’s positions on relations with India is necessary. Reconciling the divergent positions that India and Pakistan hold on issues requires accommodation; and accommodation cannot be the sole responsibility of India. In fact, there is a very good case to be made for India to expect Pakistan (as the weaker power, and one that operates with considerable strategic disadvantages) to be more accommodating and conciliatory.

It is here that we must put the government of Pakistan’s words and deeds on improving ties with India into proper context. Some writers suggest that Pakistan agreeing to grant India MFN status will be a sign of a more amiable Pakistan. But this is a false proposition for two reasons: first, by granting India MFN status, Pakistan will only be fulfilling (belatedly, by about two decades) its commitments as a WTO member, and second, it is almost exclusively Pakistan, not India, that will benefit from the removal of excessive trade barriers. This, then, is not accommodation, but the rational actions of a government attempting to salvage its failing economy.

This is not to say that India must not normalise relations with its neighbours. Clearly, it is important to do so, and to the extent that trade can be an engine in this normalisation process, efforts that bolster bilateral trade must be encouraged. But these efforts must also yield tangible benefits to India. In terms of trade, India’s primary interest in Pakistan is its proximity to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India has pledged more than $2 billion to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan; however, as it does not share a land border with Afghanistan, most of India’s goods enter the Afghan market by sea – either through the Iranian port of Chahbahar or Karachi, in a limited manner. The option to trade with Afghanistan via land through Pakistan is vital to India’s ability to fulfill trade commitments in an economically feasible manner. However, Pakistani suspicions on Indian intentions have delayed a workable solution that could benefit not only India and Afghanistan, but also Pakistan.

Similarly, Pakistan’s location and proximity to energy-rich Central Asia could potentially be of benefit to India. However, energy supplies routed through Pakistan could be targets of attacks, either with or without the sponsorship of the Pakistani state. Pakistan, while interested in joint energy pipeline projects with India, has been unable to assuage these fears. Indeed, if persistent attacks against NATO trucks in Balochistan are any indicator, India’s misgivings are not without justification.

Further, if Pakistan’s accommodation on issues of trade is minimal, it is largely unyielding on issues related to border disputes with India. Articles in the mainstream media and papers presented at Track-II moots put forth solutions for resolving the Siachen dispute which involve Indian withdrawal from Siachen/Saltoro Ridge or creating a “peace zone” for joint weather studies.  But given Pakistan’s historical proclivity for adventurism in Kashmir and the growing Chinese presence in Gilgit-Baltistan, such suggestions can hardly be entertained.

On terrorism, Pakistan’s position vis-a-vis India remains unmoved. That there haven’t been any recent large-scale attacks is not evidence of a lack of intent. Training camps continue to exist across the border. The 26/11-court case in Pakistan has dragged on since 2008, with four different judges having been assigned to the case and then surreptitiously removed. While Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi and six others are in custody, LeT’s emir, Hafiz Saeed, continues to operate freely in Pakistan, organising rallies against the U.S. and India, and delivering keynote speeches at the Lahore High Court. There are suggestions now in Pakistan’s media that the 26/11 judicial proceedings could be negatively impacted with the execution of Ajmal Kasab in India. Clearly, these are not signs of a country desirous of pursuing peace with any level of assiduity.

Finally, India need not take hasty decisions today that could negatively impact our national security in the future. India must evaluate evolving scenarios of a post US Afghanistan in 2014.  Pakistan believes it can ensure that the reconciliation process in Afghanistan ends in its favour. But Pakistan’s vision for Afghanistan sees Indian involvement in that country as inimical to its interests. The downgraded American presence in the region after 2014 may result in decreased financial largesse to Pakistan, increased reliance on drone attacks and inevitable sanctions.

How Pakistan intends to respond to these challenges remains to be seen.  Historically, Pakistan has tried to retain American interests by injudiciously acting on Washington’s fears; these included expanding its nuclear weapons program, proliferation, terrorism and war with India. Alternatively, Pakistan could seek to offset decreased financial assistance through a greater reliance on China and through genuine attempts at reconciliation with India. If Pakistan chooses the latter, India should not be found wanting in reciprocating. If chooses is the former, we must not find ourselves regretting compromises made to our national security in moments of overzealousness.

Photo: Anne