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Will the twain never meet?

This year’s session of the UN General Assembly provided a springboard for Islamabad and New Delhi to take a dig at each other. The Indian foreign minister minced no words in stigmatising Pakistan as a factory of terrorists. Pakistan’s permanent representative to the world body retaliated by branding India as “the mother of terrorism”. Such acrimonious tit-for-tat allegations would turn even an incurable optimist about a turnaround in bilateral relations into a cantankerous cynic.

During last year’s General Assembly session as well, Sushma Swaraj had called for identifying and isolating nations that nurtured and exported terrorism. However, she had stopped short of naming the country. However, at the recent session, she spoke with no holds barred. It seems that the new US South Asian strategy announced by Donald Trump in his signature style has given a leg-up to New Delhi to round on Islamabad.

Only the US is capable of having India tone down its anti-Pakistan tirade. But when Washington itself accuses Islamabad, in so many words, of being a sponsor of terrorism – and threatens to stick a knife into it – and in the same breath sees a starring role for New Delhi in regional stability, we can safely surmise that the Indians will seek to grind down their western neighbour. Ironically, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s tone at the General Assembly was conciliatory as he urged Pakistan to engage in a dialogue to stamp out extremism.

Terrorism has come to occupy the centre-stage in Pak-India relations. Each side points a finger at the other for sponsoring terrorism on its soil. The current downturn in bilateral relations was kicked off by the attack on an air force base at Pathankot in Indian Punjab in January 2016, which New Delhi put down to non-state actors from Pakistan. The ongoing unrest in Indian Occupied Kashmir – racked up by the strong-arm tactics employed by the regime, including the death of Burhan Wani at the hands of security forces in July 2016 – remains an excruciating pain in the neck of New Delhi.

India looks down upon the Kashmir uprising as militancy fuelled by Pakistan. The world at large also sees eye-to-eye with New Delhi. But for Islamabad, the Kashmiris are only baying for exercising their right to self-determination.

When the Uri base, located in the disputed territory of Kashmir, came under attack in September 2016, the incident – in which nearly 20 soldiers were killed – was instantly pinned on Pakistan by the Indian home minister. That was followed by similar allegations from Indian Prime Minister Modi, a man who has a chip on his shoulder. The death sentence awarded to the Indian national Kulbhushan Jhadav by a military tribunal in Pakistan in April for espionage and sabotage, further soured bilateral relations.

It is unfortunate that, despite sacrificing and doing so much in the war on terror, Pakistan continues to be accused of falling between two stools. At the recent Brics summit, even China deemed it in order to incorporate in the declaration’s strictures on militant outfits allegedly based in Pakistan. At the same time, Pakistan’s narrative that India is aiding and abetting militants on its soil has found few sympathetic listeners. This makes it imperative for the country to come clean on its counterterrorism credentials. It is not a question of pleasing India – or, for that matter, any other nation – but of preserving its reputation.

Now take India, which visibly dominates South Asia. The country is the region’s leading territorial and military power and the foremost economy, market and trading nation. India is the most stable – and to many, the only stable – democracy in the region. Along with Pakistan, it is a nuclear state.

It is one thing to be a regional power and quite another to be a regional leader. India has enjoyed the status of a South Asian power for a long time. But does it have the credentials of a regional leader? To become a regional leader, a country needs to command the trust and respect of its smaller neighbours and not their fear. However, most other South Asian nations feel that India, swelled with pride, is out to bully them – especially when they have had bilateral disputes (territorial, sharing of river waters, etc) with it. This has caused shafts of distrust to run through them and has made them look outside for mediation.

It’s not that only India holds the key to give effect to a thaw in the bilateral ties. To produce such an effect, the willingness of Pakistan is equally important. It takes two, not one, to tango. Yet India – being a stable democracy and a rising economic power – carries a greater responsibility and has a greater policy space available to it than Pakistan to secure durable peace in the region. But peace cannot be secured by maintaining the status quo. Instead, it can be achieved by addressing the key issues.

Surprisingly, over the last several years, it is only Islamabad that has gone out of its way to address some of these issues. First, the government of military ruler Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008) indicated its willingness to move away from the principled Kashmir position – which calls for implementation of the UNSC resolutions on the territory. In a display of tremendous flexibility, Islamabad seemed inclined towards adopting the ‘out-of-the-box’ solution of making the two parts of Kashmir fully autonomous, with the two countries jointly controlling their defence and foreign affairs. But its willingness did not translate into reality.

On the second occasion, Pakistan decided to normalise trade relations with India, which was to culminate in the granting of the most-favoured nation status (MFN) to the latter by the end of 2012. As a part of the overture, the positive list for imports from India was replaced with a negative list comprising about 1,200 goods out of more than 6,000 importable products. The move was bold for two reasons.

First, it marked a significant deviation from Islamabad’s strategic argument for restricted trade with India, which made the normalisation of commercial ties with the eastern neighbour contingent upon the settlement of the ‘core’ Kashmir problem. India, on the other hand, has all along insisted that political problems – including Kashmir – should not bear upon commercial relations and that the restoration of normal trade ties between both countries would create common stakes, which in turn would contribute to addressing the political issues.

Second, the trade balance has heavily been in favour of India – and understandably so, due to the country’s better economic indicators. By agreeing to open imports from India, Pakistan risked running an even greater trade deficit. But again, the momentum in trade liberalisation could not be maintained and New Delhi has yet to obtain an MNF status from Pakistan.

Though the goal could not be achieved in each case, the important thing was that Pakistan showed the flexibility to tone down its stated position on two key issues. Regrettably, India has yet to come out with such flexibility even though it is better-placed to do so. Not only that, New Delhi’s tantrums at times give the impression that it wants to be sued for peace on bended knees. Nothing can be as fatal for bilateral ties as this impression.

Hussain H Zaidi, "Will the twain never meet?," The news. 2017-09-30.
Keywords: Political sciences , General Assembly , Security forces , Pakistani military , Nuclear state , Regional leader , Economic power , Federal government , Strategic relations , Democracy , Pakistan , India , China , America , Afghanistan