For decades, a kind of cold war enveloped South Asia mainly because India and Pakistan didn’t get along and the talk of war never really subsided. Then in 2015-16 something different happened. Two economic corridors suddenly sprang into existence, and if they are meant for trade then this cold war must come to an end. But funnily, that’s not what most people in the subcontinent feel or want.
Pakistan’s “strategic thinking” is that the Chabahar route being funded by India is part of a nutcracker move against it; many Indians think the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a Chinese move to encircle India, the port of Gwadar being another pearl in the Chinese string of pearls policy that aims to “choke” India with a “necklace” of bases.
For the first time, Pakistan is isolated because of the internal disorder that threatens the world. Under Narendra Modi, India has reached out successfully to states west of Pakistan that everyone thought backed Pakistan. In Pakistan, critics have opened up for the first time and are questioning the policies that have caused this feeling of isolation. Muffled advice from China has no effect on policymakers who continue to challenge trade as a strategic nutcracker.
But Carnegie India’s C Raja Mohan thinks differently. In his recent column in this paper he wrote: “The Modi government now has expansive diplomatic leverage and political agency to broaden relations with all the major powers and deepen its engagement with neighbours. After the entente with America, India must have the self-assurance to shed its other ‘hesitations of history’, especially towards China and Pakistan.”
Everybody knows in Pakistan, but will not say so, that Nawaz Sharif too thinks in the same way as Modi. Sharif can’t seem to convince a revisionist Pakistan that the time for a paradigm shift is at hand. And the actual game-changers are already in place in the shape of two trade routes. He got Modi to come to a private ceremony at his house in Lahore, emblematically in the company of his Indian businessman friend, Sajjan Jindal. In her recent book, This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines, Barkha Dutt reveals the whole Sharif-Modi “conspiracy” to normalise relations through trade.
The 2014 “Kathmandu meeting” hosted by Jindal raised hackles; and such hackles usually imply accusations of treason. But if Henry Kissinger could travel secretly to Beijing in 1971 to effect a global paradigm shift there should be moral forgiveness for what the two leaders did. Jindal, whom Dutt counts among “Indian steelmakers who would ferry iron ore from Afghanistan by road across Pakistan from where it would be shipped to ports in western and southern India”, will be remembered as “the hand of god” if Indo-Pak relations normalise as a result of his efforts.
Raja Mohan is not the only person who has unorthodox thoughts about India’s foreign policy, especially towards its neighbours, China and Pakistan; but he is brave when he includes China, knowing that India is revisionist about its northern neighbour. There is another “thinking” person across the border: Pakistan’s ex-foreign secretary Riaz Muhammad Khan, a maverick like Raja Mohan. His book, Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity (2011), remains the most significant critique of Pakistan’s foreign policy by a bureaucrat from the country. “Its ambition to become a hub of economic activity would be difficult to realise without the opening of transit routes to India. When Pakistan initiated the idea of activating the KKH for commerce with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in early 1993, the two countries were enthusiastic. The Kazakh minister for transportation convened a meeting and invited both the Pakistani and Indian ambassadors based in Alma Ata. He was disappointed to learn that India could not be included at that time…”
Former Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar recently stated: “Pakistan cannot conquer Kashmir through war and the issue can only be handled in an environment of mutual trust…” South Asia is going to face problems it can only handle cooperatively. There is no other course open to India and Pakistan except that of reconciliation.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Resisting game changers’)