Pakistan is in a fix. The Imran-Bajwa dispensation is at a loss over the pressing priorities of the nation. Between cotton yarn (plus sugar) and Kashmir, what holds greater significance for the country, the Pakistani establishment is so puzzled to decide that it made a mockery of itself before the world making two conflicting announcements in two consecutive days.
On March 31, the Imran Khan government affirmed that it would import cotton from India and admitted that the 19-month-long restrictions had affected its small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) adversely. Pakistan’s Finance Minister Hammad Azhar also informed that the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) has allowed the private sector to import five lakh tonnes of sugar from India.
The next day, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan reversed the ECC decision saying that the current circumstances between the two countries were not conducive to trade. The new decision was announced after the Cabinet meeting in which Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi reportedly emphasised that the resumption of trade was not possible until India restored the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.
Now, what astonished everyone is — what made Pakistan take a U-turn in just 24 hours? Neither the constitutional autonomy of Kashmir was changed between 31st March and 1st April, nor the high-powered committee, ECC, was unaware that article 370 was scrapped way back in 2019. What is even more interesting that the approval document on trade was duly signed by the Pakistan Prime Minister, which rules out the option of making newly-appointed Finance Minister Hammad Azhar a fall guy for the fiasco
So the question is who in Pakistan triggered the volte-face on trade with India? Was it the final call of Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa that forced Imran Khan from signing off the trade proposal?
On the contrary, it was General Bajwa who recently in his speech at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, referring to the geo-economics of South Asia, pushed for stronger trade relations in the region, and recognising the Kashmir dispute, called for burying the past and move forward.
Notably, the February 25 announcement by Pakistan to observe the 2003 ceasefire agreement at the Line of Control would not have come about without the nod of General Bajwa. Weeks before that, on 3rd February, the Pakistan army chief in a speech at Air Force academy had highlighted the need to “extend a hand of peace in all directions””.
In truth, both General Bajwa and Imran Khan seem on the same page on improving trade ties with India, as a day before the Army chief’s famous speech in Islamabad, the Pakistan Prime Minister also had expressed the same sentiment.
Economy in shambles but Pakistan busy in Kashmir gamble
Undeniably, the reason behind the change of Pakistan’s stance is the state of its economy, which is in shambles. In 2020, the GDP of the country slipped to minus 1.5%. The country is facing sustained economic sanctions imposed by the global terror financing watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for sponsoring terrorism. From Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Turkey to Iran, Pakistan has been scurrying for financial assistance.
Pakistan’s slide into misery started after the Pulwama attack, when India withdrew Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to Pakistan, raising the customs duty on all goods exported from Pakistan to 200% with immediate effect. The formal trade between the two countries dropped to almost nil after Pakistan decided to suspend bilateral trade with India in August 2019, following the abrogation of article 370.
Essentially, Imran Khan has tied himself into knots by making Kashmir a precondition for reopening the trade. Even though he knows that India won’t change its stance on Kashmir. Perhaps he is also aware that Pakistan needs India more than India needs Pakistan to strengthen its economy. One can only hope that Imran Khan stops playing to the gallery and be serious if he is keen on rebuilding ties with India. First, Pakistan should show its seriousness by dismantling the terror infrastructure on its soil and putting an end to breeding terrorists against India.