The Pulse

India-Pakistan Engagement: Changing the Status Quo

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The Pulse

India-Pakistan Engagement: Changing the Status Quo

India and Pakistan would be wise to increase citizen engagement and economic cooperation.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Islamabad and Lahore. The timing was significant because it coincided with the heinous terrorist attack in Jammu and the meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. It was interesting to consider the Pakistani psyche in this context.

One thing that clearly emerged is that sections of the elite in Pakistan – this includes journalists, some intellectuals and of course those connected with the army – are extremely confused, and do not seem to have any clear solutions to the numerous problems plaguing the country. While they do acknowledge that Pakistan has serious issues, inevitably they blame the U.S. and now to a lesser degree India for them. While blaming India is no surprise, the choice to also blame the U.S. is baffling in light of the close links between the two countries. Indeed, most well-off Pakistanis have U.S. citizenship or green cards and own properties there. Further, many privileged Pakistanis send their children to American schools.

With regard to India, their also seems to be a lack of clarity. While there is a desire to improve ties, inevitably India is blamed for tensions between the two countries.

What is interesting to note is that a significant section of the middle classes in Pakistan, who may not have strong ties with India, have a much clearer vision and understanding of the need for better relations with India. This is not out of any sudden love for their Eastern neighbor, but is more a matter of sheer practicality. While privileged Pakistanis have the west as a back-up, the middle classes do not. Better links with India provide them with economic opportunities. Many are also keen to learn more about the progress India has made in spheres like healthcare, information technology and education.

This change of heart is manifest even within sections of the Urdu media that were historically jingoistic but have begun to follow a pragmatic line vis-à-vis India.

The second lesson that clearly emerges is that it is too early to expect miracles from Nawaz Sharif, given how many problems he confronts. It makes more sense to first at least get some degree of control over domestic affairs. This in no way means that Sharif is not the right person for the job. If anything, he is the best bet. But this may only become apparent over the long term, once he is well ensconced in the saddle. Yet, as recent events reiterate, when it comes to engagement between India and Pakistan a lot depends on timing.

Does this mean that both countries should stop engagement at all levels? The answer is a clear no. There are a few things they can do to make further progress.

The first is greater interactions between ordinary citizens on both sides, especially from outside Islamabad and Lahore. For a long time, interactions between India and Pakistan have been minimal. Only a few select people traverse the border and pontificate about the virtues of a good relationship, as though they have a monopoly. While engagement among such individuals and groups has not been a totally useless exercise, it has not been particularly effective.

Second, expecting major changes on vexed issues may be utopian. Further, India cannot afford to engage with Pakistan with India seeming weak and Pakistan out of control and not in a position to deliver. However, the economic sphere is one where both sides can continue to move ahead, while ensuring mutual benefits. Over the past few years strides have been made in this realm, which has built a strong constituency especially in the border regions on both sides.

Alliances and friendships do not mean that countries give up their own interests. Ultimately, every country has to fight its own battles. Pakistan should remember that and stop blaming others for its problems.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based columnist.