When Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took the reins four months ago there was immense hope in India that the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) leader would give a boost to ties between the two countries, especially in the realm of trade. Unfortunately, tensions across the Line of Control (LOC) in August, a terrorist attack on the eve of the meeting between Sharif and his counterpart Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the UNGA, and continuing tensions in Kashmir have put the issues of trade and people-to-people contact on the backburner.
If anything, the naysayers on both sides have become further emboldened. The electronic media in India has been jingoistic, and the opposition BJP has not been particularly supportive of Singh’s dialogue with Pakistan. The Pakistan electronic media hasn’t helped matters either, as this writer witnessed during a recent Pakistan sojourn. Sections of Pakistani media criticized Sharif for being excessively soft on India. They obviously forget that the fear that India will take over the Pakistani market is just speculation, while China has already done so.
While it is easy for both sides to wait for the electoral outcome in India before thinking of engagement, it makes more sense to at least ensure that the gains made in the economic realm are not wasted. In this context, the current leadership on both sides needs to take some important steps.
On the Pakistani side, Sharif needs to assert himself. For one, this includes reducing tensions across the LOC and sending a clear message to the army that he is the boss. It also means categorically stating to those skeptical about trade with India that economic ties with its eastern neighbor are mutually beneficial. It is essential for Sharif to reach out to fence sitters who are influenced by the nationalistic utterances of hardliners.
Apart from this, Sharif should go ahead with granting most favored nation status to India. The Pakistan PM would also do well to push for upgrading infrastructure at Wagah – the nations’ only shared road border crossing – to increase bilateral trade along the Wagah (Pakistan) – Attari (India) land route.
On the Indian side, Singh may not be in a position to do anything significant in the next few months, but he can revive the engagement between the commerce ministries of both sides. The Indian leadership also needs to remove the misconception in India that trade and commerce with Pakistan only benefits Pakistan. Those in India who oppose trade with Pakistan forget the fact that many Indian businesses are likely to gain. This is why infrastructure along the border near Attari has been significantly improved over the last two years. Similarly, there are lobbies in other border states like Kashmir, Rajasthan and Gujarat pushing for addressing logistical issues that hamper bilateral trade.
India should also specifically address constituencies in Pakistan which are keen for trade, but are influenced by hardliners’ propaganda. Until then, some business lobbies will remain skeptical and strengthen the agenda of hardliners in Pakistan.
The period of 2011-2013 was a time during which Singh re-started the conversation in the economic sphere. In this context, commerce ministries on both sides and border states have the potential to be important players. Some movement over the next few months would help the next government as well.
It would be a pity if economic ties between both countries were to be a victim of a sub-section of the Pakistan army, hardliners who are trying hard to destabilize Sharif and India hawks who look at the bilateral relationship through a skewed lens.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Columnist.