Dateline Islamabad

India-Pakistan: Faces in the Sand

09 Jun, 2014    ·   4500

Salma Malik provides a Pakistani perspective on whether the India-Pakistan bilateral will improve with Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif as the respective prime ministers

Given how the economics-savvy boys in India and Pakistan have initiated their cross-border relations, looking at the next five years skeptically would be unfair. It started with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif telephoning the then Indian Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi, who impromptu asked him to visit Delhi, which was more than happily agreed to. The rest that followed was official and routine, with thumps on the backs to both leaders for putting the right step forward. Pakistan also released Indian fishermen – who are usually collateral damage, along with their Pakistani counterparts, in the India-Pakistan conflict – as a goodwill gesture.

Skeptics such as me, who after cynically observing the oft-tread pattern of South Asian politics, take lead in dismissing any massive breakthrough in unresolved conflicts, but concede over minor triumphs that help improve the atmospherics. Conversely, the detractors completely dismiss the merits of dialogue or interaction as they consider it as selling out a national ideology. Wedged between these two negatives, any positive overture is not only welcomed but often merited beyond its own essence. This hype often proves counter-productive as not only does the public pin too much expectation from these overtures, but they also deeply micro-monitor the efforts to the extent of turning them into a political circus of sorts. Elsewhere, a summit level meeting will always claim major headlines, but with realist expectations and considered more of a norm. However in South Asia’s case, many ordinary norm and codes of conduct do not apply.

One question that has often been asked of Pakistanis in the recent months is what do we think about Modi as a prime minister? My counter question is do we as neighbors get to choose who is elected to office in New Delhi or elsewhere? No; but what we can do is aim towards setting realistic goals instead of drawing rosy pictures or trying to thread the string from where the last Bharatiya Janata Government (BJP) government left it at: the Lahore Declaration or the much talked about Chenab river plan. Narendra Modi is not Atal Behari Vajpayee, and despite being elected from the platform and being Kar Sevaks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the two could not be more different. They have very different visions and orientations, and are set almost a generation apart. In very realistic terms, we should not expect Modi to act like his predecessor, as Vajpayee had a vision, which was baptised by the hardcore realities that he himself was a participatory to, and wanted to leave a legacy of peace between the two neighbors despite stiff opposition from his party cadres and policy makers. Much has changed over the last decade, with more interest groups favoring the constituency of conflict than peace.

At best, what Pakistan would see is some positive movement on the economic front. At the micro level, this would prove beneficial and may indirectly strengthen the somewhat vocal trade and commerce constituency that has constantly pressed for enhanced bilateral trade. In fact, in December 2011, Modi, as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, was invited by a visiting delegation of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry to visit the city and showcase the successful “Gujarat Model.” But the trip did not materialise for various reasons – one amongst them being, Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 riots where several Muslims were killed.

If the two prime ministers come together on the economic front, there would be enhanced bilateral trade, and increased Afghan transit trade as well. The second benefit could be increased cooperation in the energy sector, as speculations point towards a potential 500 MW electricity transmission line from India to Pakistan – that would bring some respite to the energy-stressed country. However, on the economic front, Pakistan also needs to keep in mind that changing regional dynamics entail shifting politico-economic priorities, and with Modi being touted as South Asian Shinzo Abe, all the world powers would be keen to pursue better commercial relations with New Delhi.

Regretably, however, positive development towards resolving key contentious issues is unlikely. Those issues will remain stalemated, and when bilateral talks will finally be scheduled and rebooted, the pattern would be the same: talks for the sake of continuing with talks. However, the more concerning notion is the possibility of New Delhi revoking Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which accords special status to the Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir. Not only would such an action hold drastic consequences for the occupied valley and its relations with New Delhi, but across the Line of Control, it could trigger a similar move, creating a political compulsion for Pakistan to react in a similar fashion. In Pakistan, Kashmir’s final legal status lay pending under Article 257 of the Pakistani Constitution. Although it would not be very easy to repeal Article 370, most of its provisions have already been violated over the years. Lastly and most dangerously, it will also give credence to right wing elements to oppose any bilateral ties, promote armed agitation and violence by militants and indigenous Kashmiri resistance groups.

As for other areas of discord, there would not be much beyond occasional releases of fishermen and prisoners. I am reminded of Sudarsan Pattnaik’s beautiful sand sculpture of Modi and Sharif at Puri beach, Odisha, with the message that peace gets a chance, yet these remain faces in sand, that face the danger of being swept away by strong winds and water currents. For peace to really stand a chance, it should not be sculpted in sand but built on solid realistic grounds for mutual growth and benefit.