Handling Indo-Pak logjam, Punjab CMs on both sides must initiate thaw

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There is no better place than Wagah to look for evidence of how badly India-Pakistan relations have eroded. Wagah is the only legally permissible place where, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., border crossings on foot can be made with the proper visas. On one Sunday morning, I was the only border crosser from Pakistan when the gates opened.

Customs officials told me that perhaps 50 people make the crossing daily, except for the occasional tour bus. Prior efforts by Pakistani and Indian governments to simplify tourism, family reunions, and trade have come to this sorry state. Punjab remains an excellent barometer of the state of Indo-Pak relations. After Partition, it was a killing field. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee traversed this blood-stained soil by bus in February 1999 attempting to normalise relations with Pakistan in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests. In another highly symbolic gesture, Mr Vajpayee then went to the Minar-i-Pakistan, the monument erected in Lahore to commemorate Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s famous declaration in 1940 of the need to establish a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims. There, Mr Vajpayee penned these words in the distinguished visitors’ book:

“From this historic ‘Minar-i-Pakistan’, I wish to assure the people of Pakistan of my country’s deep desire for lasting peace and friendship. I have said this before, and I say it again: A stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Let no one in Pakistan be in doubt about this. India sincerely whishes the people of Pakistan well.”

Pakistan’s military chiefs were not on hand to greet Mr Vajpayee at the border. The then Army Chief, Gen Pervez Musharraf, and a very select group around him were already deep into the Kargil misadventure. Afterward, when General Musharraf had a change of heart and was ready to take big risks to normalise ties with India, New Delhi was still feeling battered and bruised. Good timing is not one of the prominent features of Indo-Pak dialogue. Nor is sustained progress: when there is the possibility that modest gains might yield more meaningful results, big explosions happen.

A cross-Kashmir bus service was launched between Srinigar and Muzaffarabad in April 2005. Few use it. Pledges were also made to simplify trade across the Kashmir divide. This is not happening. A train service began running between Delhi and Lahore. The “Samjhauta Express” was attacked near Panipat in February 2007, killing 68 travellers. The Government of India has yet to identify the perpetrators, who are believed to be Hindu extremists. Forty-two Pakistani travellers were killed on the train, along with 26 Indians. In November 2008, Muslim extremists linked to the Lashkar-i-Toiba, a group that retains links to Pakistani intelligence services, attacked iconic targets in Mumbai, killing 164. The attackers were trained and equipped on Pakistani soil.

India and Pakistan have again agreed to resume what they used to call a composite dialogue at the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit in Thimphu. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government is beset by scandals and has had a very long, tiring run. Popular views in Pakistan concerning the government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani are perhaps best summed up by an editorial cartoon in one local paper showing him admiring himself in a hand-held mirror, but his reflection in the mirror was blank. Even though both governments are wounded, modest confidence-building and nuclear-risk reduction measures could be agreed to, as was the case after earlier crises sparked off by mass casualty acts of terrorism. Pledges against attacking nuclear facilities might be expanded to other types of installations, such as dams and historic sites. The pre-notification agreement for ballistic missile flight tests could be expanded to include cruise missiles, as Pakistan has previously proposed. The joint counter-terrorism mechanism, which was doomed to failure by appointing Foreign Ministry officials as co-chairs, can do no worse and might do better by being led by intelligence officials. An incidents-at-sea agreement could be finalised, as could long-delayed deals on the Siachen and Sir Creek issues. A SAARC-wide agreement on information exchanges related to monsoon rains, glacial melt and early warnings of extreme weather – perhaps with the assistance of outsiders with greater access to satellite data – could help with land use and water management as well as disaster relief. Many analysts and NGOs have joined the Stimson Center in proposing these and other incremental steps. Identifying useful measures is relatively easy; the hard part is encouraging diplomats to act positively rather than to explain in minute detail why the prospects for success are remote. Change on the subcontinent comes from the top down, not from the ranks of civil servants.

If past is the prelude, incremental successes may again be possible – along with big explosions. Small gains will not lead to breakthroughs unless there is a shift in the strategic culture of Pakistan’s military leaders. Distrust of Indian intentions is embedded in their DNA, and as the conventional military imbalance shifts increasingly in India’s favour, Pakistan’s military establishment grows more concerned about dictation from across the border. This need not preclude modest nuclear risk-reduction measures, as long as these arrangements do not impinge on Rawalpindi’s perceived insurance policies. But if Pakistani military leaders remain convinced that India constitutes a mortal threat, the normalisation process will not proceed very fast or very far.

How, then, to proceed in such inauspicious circumstances? A breakthrough, if one is remotely possible, is likely to come from Punjab, as Prime Minister Vajpayee intuited. India’s economy, shackled by Nehruvian dogma, was on the ropes until then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao opened the door to market principles in 1991. National entrepreneurship flourished, and the world is now beating a path to India’s door. Pakistan is currently facing dire economic straits, which are greatly compounded by the lack of trade with India, its most natural and largest market. Pakistan’s military has a very large stake in the national economy. If trade could be greatly expanded across the Punjab divide, substantial benefits could accrue.

Prior efforts to expand Indo-Pak trade have failed. There is need for learning the lessons why it is crucial to not repeating failures. Perhaps prospects for success might improve if the initiative came from the two Chief Ministers, rather than from New Delhi and Islamabad. (The same notion applies to increasing trade between Sindh and Gujarat.) The appointment of highly successful and respected entrepreneurs by the Chief Ministers to map out a plan for vastly increased trade that can generate economic gains and job growth on both sides of the border is likely to have a far greater chance of success than if such matters were left in the hands of civil servants.

Incremental successes by means of nuclear risk-reduction measures remain valuable in their own right and symbolic of responsible nuclear stewardship. While important, these measures are not game-changers. Vastly improved trade between India and Pakistan, beginning across the Punjab divide, can be a game-changer.


This piece was originally published in the Chandigarh Tribunte.


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