The change of government in Islamabad can become a harbinger not only to restore civility in India-Pakistan relations, but also to give impetus to the normalization of ties between the two neighbours.
Unlike his predecessor Imran Khan, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is neither a demagogue nor a megalomaniac who lives in an alternate reality. On the contrary, Shehbaz Sharif is an experienced politician who understands the imperatives of improving relations with India.
Fortuitously, he will also have the support of the Pakistani army in any initiative or sensitization he undertakes towards India. For its part, India, while being cautious in its engagement with Pakistan, may not hesitate to agree to reciprocate any initiative taken by Pakistan.
While India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory message and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s response were nothing out of the ordinary – it’s normal for two heads of government to show courtesy – even this gesture is something of a change compared to the toxicity that defined relations between the two countries under the regime of Imran Khan.
In the future, it is to be expected that diplomatic decorum and decency, which had been thrown to the winds by the abusive Imran Khan, will once again become the norm. That in itself would help reduce tension and bitterness in bilateral relations. More importantly, it will open the door to the possibility of some sort of engagement between the two South Asian neighbors.
It is undeniable that a simple change of style will not be enough to solve some of the thorniest issues – territorial disputes, the Kashmir issue and, of course, terrorism – which plague India-Pakistan relations. But now is the time for both countries, and in some ways Pakistan more than India, to distinguish between the outstanding issues and the existential issues that threaten the very existence of this state.
Many countries around the world have problems with their neighbors. Sometimes these are territorial, other times ideological and political, and in other cases economic or related to the environment or water or other administrative issues. Although most countries deal with these issues through dialogue, they do not wage war or proxy war to force the issue. Perhaps now is the time for Pakistan to also learn from the experience of other countries and if it can maintain its position on some of the outstanding issues, it should not let them poison the well of bilateral relations. or hold the broader relationship with India hostage to these issues.
The focus, however, should be on existential issues, some of which are specific to Pakistan; others are common to the two South Asian neighbours. Pakistan’s economy is on the verge of failure. He is trapped in debt and is watching a default. Opening up to India – trade and connectivity – would only help Pakistan get back on its feet. There really is no downside to this. Other issues like radicalism and terrorism are common challenges.
Cooperation between the two countries will enable them both to get rid of the threat of terrorism and to defeat radicalism. There is also the larger strategic scenario that confronts the two countries. Until now, it was a zero-sum game between them. They have both found themselves on opposite sides in the great power strategic contest. But if they were to work together, their negotiating position would increase considerably and they could withstand the blows and pressures of great power politics.
The bottom line is that there is much more to be gained for both India and Pakistan if they normalize their relations than if they remain daggers drawn. The economic benefits cannot be underestimated. Trade will both help fight inflation, prevent shortages of essential goods, provide markets and connectivity for both sides, and unlock hitherto blocked synergies.
Halting trade or adopting beggar-thy-neighbour policies is like cutting off your nose to spite someone else’s face. Trade and tourism links enhance the physical and economic security not only of the state, but also of society. Moreover, it will contribute to political security. Instead of watching each other with suspicion, the two countries can focus on improving the lives of their citizens.
In the specific case of Pakistan, it can move from a national security state to a welfare state. In fact, the influence of the military would be a catalyst for such a turn of events, as the perceived threat from India would dissipate a few notches. If India and Pakistan can work together towards a better future, it will naturally pave the way for greater integration of the entire South Asian region. For Pakistan, the resulting benefit will be that CPEC, despite Pakistan’s dream of being a viable bridge between West Asia and South Asia, and between Central Asia and South Asia, would also see a forward momentum. Some Pakistani politicians – Nawaz Sharif in particular – have understood this.
Unfortunately, at that time, the Pakistani military was not quite ready to accept this vision. But over the past few years, there are clear signs that the Pakistani military is now even more eager than politicians to raise awareness as a sort of rapprochement with India.
The concept of geo-economics enunciated by the Chief General of the Pakistani Army Qamar Bajwa underscores this change in perspective. The Pakistani military seems to have realized that the state of endless hostility is dragging Pakistan down and creating existential problems.
With the civil and military authorities of Pakistan on the same page regarding an opening towards India, there is now an opportunity for India and Pakistan to try to reset their bilateral relations. If they seize this opportunity, it can change not only the face of South Asia but also the dynamics of international politics; but if they squander the window of opportunity, then it will be tragic because such an opportunity will not present itself for many, many years.
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