Raising stakes

India-Pakistan trade can make peace a compulsion

Raising stakes
A two-day conference in Delhi on “Enhancing India-Pakistan Trade” laid bare some critical issues that have been holding the two countries from moving forward in making it a real flourishing dividend of political diplomacy. Delhi-based think tank Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) pushed through its third conference on the subject amid an “unusual lull” on the security front and a stalled dialogue progress. Business leaders on both sides could not hide their passion and urge to make a strong case for making India-Pakistan trade hassle free. Problems ranging from visas hiccups to communication were discussed. Trade between India and Pakistan has crossed $2 billion but when compared to India-China trade it is dismal. This notwithstanding the level of tension between New Delhi and Beijing.

However, the participants – though not all from the business community – agreed that the political and security environment needs to be favorable to achieve the desired goal of a successful trade regime. A tough bureaucratic set up on both sides is considered to be a stumbling block. But the fact that most of the stakeholders agree on is that a strong political leadership could override the mindset of the bureaucracy. Apart from the political set up, the media too plays a spoilsport, as has been seen in past few years.

While the India-Pakistan bonhomie survived because of progress on softer issues such as trade and culture, it has not been beneficial in carrying forward the process. As many panelists argued, the security environment has a lot to do with this deadlock. It is very difficult to understand why creating a conducive atmosphere on both sides has not been possible. On the face of it, both countries know that war is not a solution. But then, why does peace seem so elusive?

With the BJP led government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi almost shutting the door on reconciliation and peace building, Pakistan has been hardening its stance too. There is no denying the fact that Pakistan’s “half-hearted” response in what New Delhi believes in “tackling terrorism” has not yielded much, but would that mean that there will be no rapprochement? How long will the people on both sides, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, bear the brunt of this hostility? Softer issues like trade raise enormous stakes among those who are associated with it, thus creating a space for an environment of co-existence. But when there is a stalemate, it forces Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Delhi Abdul Basit to say that “softer issues have not helped” to approach the harder issues. In the conference, Basit argued that trade had increased manifold in the last decade, despite many bottlenecks, but “has it helped to open up space on addressing an issue like Jammu and Kashmir? Instead, the BJP government has hardened its position and it unilaterally canceled the Foreign Secretary level talks in August last year.” Thus he implied that Kashmir has to be addressed before other issues. That means we are back to square one. If the softer issues cannot lead to an opening to at least consider touching the harder issues, what is in store for the people in the near future?

In the same conference, the former foreign minister Yushwant Sinha maintained that bureaucracy has to be kept out of the relationship, only then “both countries can progress”. That is true to an extent, but ultimately it is the political will of the leadership that is important. What we have seen during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure as prime minister – when Sinha was the minister – was purely the will of the political leadership that changed the course of history. At a time when New Delhi boasts of over 70 percent turnout in assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, the doors for both Pakistan and the separatists are closed. Past experiences tells us that this participation in electing the local government has not worked in isolation. Developmental agenda alone has not worked in Kashmir but the rapprochement with Pakistan that brought a remarkable turnaround in the situation from 2003 to 2008 in the shape of cross Line of Control confidence building measures. One has to understand the role of Pakistan and its military, and that it cannot be neutralized by heightened tensions on the border.

What we saw in 2008 and 2010 in Kashmir was the result of a vacuum that was created after the peace process was stalled. With a single bullet having a potential to change the course in Kashmir, the lesson to be learned is that the road to peace in the region goes from Kashmir, and Kashmir has the potential to build an unbreakable bridge.

Both the countries need to respect the sentiments of businessmen and other communities who could interface in times of tension. For Modi, it is a historical opportunity to follow the path laid out by Vajpayee. He has been reaffirming off and on that he would follow his slogan of “Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat aur Kashmiriyat” but so far he does not seem to have come out of the strong pressure of state elections, where his party's victory is unfortunately linked to his hard posturing vis-a-vis Pakistan. For many in India, Pakistan may be a rogue state, but there is no solution but to deal with it. Essentially in case of Kashmir, Pakistan has a constituency both within and in Kashmir.

Even though the harder issues like Kashmir for Pakistan and terrorism for India are pressing, there is no route other than business that raises the stakes. Economy is not only key to success but to compulsion. And it must be allowed to work as the latter in respect to India-Pakistan relations. Governments on both sides must not give in to pressure created by the jingoistic discourse shaped by the media, particularly the TV channels, that are more concerned about their ratings than the peace and dignity of people.

The writer is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Srinagar