At a time when the world is in a state of unprecedented flux, it’s reassuring to find some reminders that things largely remain the same as before: The unconditional love of animals, for instance. That motorists will honk at red lights. Or that there’s another IPL right around the corner.
Less reassuring is the fact that the maxim of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ also remains firmly in place when it comes to relations between India and Pakistan.
On Thursday, Pakistan rolled back its less-than-24-hour-old decision to resume importing sugar and cotton from India. The country’s science and technology minister, Fawad Chaudhry, announced after a Cabinet meeting, “We want to cooperate with India but the first condition is that it should go back to pre-5 August, 2019 position in Kashmir.” It may be recalled that it was on that date that the Government of India abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution — an Article that granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
This volte-face on trade comes on the back of an exchange of warm letters between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Imran Khan on and after the occasion of Pakistan Day on 23 March. According to reports, Modi wrote to his counterpart in Islamabad, that “India desires cordial relations with the people of Pakistan”, while the cricketer-turned-politician replied, “The people of Pakistan also desire peaceful, cooperative relations with all neighbours, including India.”
All of which is very nice, particularly since it followed discussions between the Director-Generals of Military Operations of India and Pakistan to “”[review] the situation along the Line of Control and all other sectors in a free, frank and cordial atmosphere”. Following the discussions, “[both] sides agreed for strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors”.
This was, in turn, preceded by Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa calling for “the ideal of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence” and to “extend a hand of peace in all directions” at the national air force academy. It seemed that amidst all the darkness and despair in the world in 2021, India-Pakistan relations had taken off on a positive note. But then, as any observer of ties between these two South Asian nations will tell you, nights tend to be short and dawns tend to be false.
Let’s start with a few numbers. A year before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pakistani economy was already in the doldrums, registering an 11 percent drop in GDP from 2018 ($314.57 billion) to 2019 ($278.22 billion). Noting that the country was ‘already suffering from a mild recession prior to the arrival of COVID-19 ‘, The Express Tribune pointed out in October last year that “Pakistan’s economy for the first time in 68 years is projected to contract in the outgoing fiscal year with a negative growth rate of 0.38 percent, and the GDP is set to contract by four percent.”
The combined cost of COVID-19 (social distancing, testing, treatment, and vaccination), the government’s growing foreign debt and the drop in exports has taken a major toll on the country’s economy. According to Dawn, Pakistan’s regional exports are down by 22 percent, while its exports to China are down by 1.61 percent. Further, with gas prices set to spiral out of control, all is far from well in Pakistan,
Announcing the resumption of cotton and sugar trade with India, newly appointed finance minister Hammad Azhar commented on Wednesday that “”[the] import of cotton from India was banned and this had a direct effect on our SMEs.” He added, “Our estimate is that sugar is 15-20 percent cheaper in India as compared to Pakistan. Our decision to allow imports will benefit the poor.” The latter seems like a pragmatic move in light of the ‘mismanagement’ of sugar stocks by Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf government that The Express Tribune observes, “has made the country’s food security vulnerable despite being an agrarian economy”.
Unfortunately, pragmatism in politics isn’t always pragmatic, it would appear, with two of the most vociferous India hawks in the Khan Cabinet, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari, proclaiming that there can be no normalisation of ties with India until New Delhi ‘reviews its unilateral actions’ of 5 August, 2019.
By this point, the words ‘internal matter’ have come down with a terrible case of semantic saturation, having been rendered almost meaningless by the frequency of their repetition. And so we won’t even get into the merits of the Pakistani government’s demand, never mind the shaky legal grounds on which it stands. Let’s stick with the concept of pragmatism.
In the short term, the import of sugar and cotton had the potential to provide some relief to Pakistani citizens and take the tiniest bit of pressure off Islamabad’s import compulsions. In the long term, the opening up of a crack in the door that was slammed shut on bilateral trade would have been an apt follow-up to the gradual warming of ties between India and Pakistan — something that could, in time, lead to a greater thaw in the relationship. However, the government appears to have prioritised staving off Opposition criticism over the livelihoods of its citizens. It’s a sort of pragmatism, one could argue. But, it’s likely not the one the average Pakistani wanted.
While one could argue (and I have in the past) that taking a position and sticking to it is important, the fact is that Pakistan stands to gain a great deal more from the resumption of trade ties than India does. Consequently, the impetus of moving things forward in terms of trade rests on Islamabad’s shoulders. Even before the post-5 August, 2019 ban on trade, Indian exports to Pakistan hovered around the $2 billion mark, which while somewhat significant, are by no means irreplaceable. At this point in time, India needs to sell sugar and cotton to Pakistan far less than Pakistan needs to buy it from India, for reasons laid out by Azhar on Wednesday.
Given the almost infinitesimally small likelihood of the Modi government rolling back its decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status, Khan is left with two options. The first is to continue on this path of belligerence and pandering to Opposition whims, and inadvertently hurt the very voters who put him into office. The second is to adopt a new form of pragmatic policy-making: One that doesn’t treat international relations as monoliths and is capable of compartmentalisation of policy objectives. He would do well to look at how India and China, despite a rough 2020 — that saw killings on the LAC, the imposition of bans on apps and commodities and all manner of vitriol hurled at each other — managed over $77 billion worth of bilateral trade.
For Pakistan right now, the phrase ‘cutting off the nose to spite the face’ comes to mind.