Indian Decade

Of Shrines and Fairs

The Indian business community would be happy for more trade with Pakistan. But would that mean better ties?

President Asif Ali Zardarihas returned to Pakistan after his visit to a noted Sufi shrine in Ajmer and his subsequent, closed door lunch with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This wasn’t an official visit to India, though some in India’s attentive public had hoped that the visit might presage a move toward a relaxation of tensions with Pakistan.

Such hopes were in the air following a recent Indian trade fair held in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab, which had attracted considerable fanfare. But these fond hopes of a possible lessening of strained ties are unlikely to be realized anytime soon. Zardari’s position at home remains uncertain at best, the government in New Delhi is besieged on multiple fronts, and it’s anything but self-evident that Zardari’s efforts at bonhomie enjoy the imprimatur of the Pakistani military.

Furthermore, despite repeated pleas and demands from India, and the announcement last week of a $10 million bounty for evidence linking the leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, to the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, neither the military nor the judiciary in Pakistan has evinced the slightest interest in bringing him to justice. On the contrary, he has been allowed to hold rallies with impunity and has publicly taunted the United States about the price on his head. Under these circumstances, despite Zardari’s abrupt display of public piety, the differences that have long dogged Indo-Pakistani relations remain largely unaddressed. 

Nor will the clamor amongst some members of India’s business community, who argue increased trade with Pakistan will inevitably contribute to a thaw in the otherwise fraught relationship, prompt a quick change in policy. The historical evidence from other parts of the world with similar enduring rivalries offers little evidence that an expansion in trade and commercial ties necessarily ameliorates, let alone ends, deep-seated, intractable differences.

Zardari’s visit may have provided an occasion for speculation and commentary about the prospects of reducing existing distrust and suspicions. However, in the absence of some concrete and potentially costly gestures on the part of the Pakistani politico-military establishment demonstrating an interest in improving ties with India, the occasional trade fairs and visits to religious sites will amount to mostly cosmetic rituals.