India-Pakistan bonhomie certainly appears to be the flavor of the season. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari’s recent luncheon meeting with Indian Premier Manmohan Singh, easing of regulations to allow closer economic ties and the recent statement of Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai that India was willing to talk to Pakistan on Kashmir demonstrate a desire on both sides for better ties. While it is easy for experts to be cynical, it is not a policy solution.
At the leadership level, it is well known that both President Zardari and Premier Singh personally desire better ties between their two countries and both have faced obstacles in their path towards this goal. What is also known is that it is more difficult for any civilian government in Pakistan to offer ‘more’ to India and much easier for an Indian government to do so. Under these circumstances, what if Dr. Singh, following his predecessor Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, had offered something that has not yet been offered by India: unilateral concessions on visa, economy and even strategic issues.
A grim reminder of the futility of the two countries’ hostility came in the form of news of more than 130 Pakistani troops being trapped in an avalanche on Siachen glacier, where the two sides have pitted soldiers against each other in an icy wasteland more than 18,000 ft. above sea level. Premier Singh offered both sympathy and assistance to the Pakistani President. However, what is required is a resumption of talks over demilitarizing the glacier so that lives often lost more to frostbite and avalanches rather than actual fighting are saved on both sides.
Prior to 1965 Indians and Pakistanis did not need a visa to travel to the other country. If India unilaterally changes its visa policies and offers visa on arrival to all categories except a limited few and multiple-entry visa to all categories who apply a few months in advance it would have an immense impact. Pakistan would either have to reciprocate or have to explain to its own people (as well as the international community) why it is not reciprocating India’s policy.
On the economic and trade front, Pakistan’s economy needs investment, trade, access to markets and has immense human and entrepreneurial potential. Indian businesses are looking for markets to invest in, would like access to cheap raw material and would welcome cheap and yet skilled labor. Pakistan has finally undertaken the final steps required to implement the Most Favored Nation status with respect to India. What if India offers to lower its non-tariff barriers vis-à-vis those commodities which are traded with Pakistan?
India’s energy needs will keep growing and a South-Asia-wide energy grid would be ideal both economically and strategically for India and would benefit Pakistan as well. Opening of trade with Pakistan would also lead to transit trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia. This would provide India with access to those markets as well as access to energy resources. Pakistan, too, would benefit: not only from the transit trade and its royalties but access to more markets. Access to Afghanistan through Pakistan and access to more energy resources would further reduce India’s dependence on Iran for access to Afghanistan and for energy.
If we look at the military front, even though India’s main threat is China, the Indian military, especially the army, is still trained and equipped to fight a conventional war with Pakistan. Pakistan’s strategists, too, fear the existential threat from India: they fear both Indian capabilities and Indian intentions. What if India was to change that? What if India offered military-to-military and intelligence-to-intelligence talks with Pakistan? If India can have military exchanges and dialogue with China then why not with Pakistan? And what if during these military-to-military talks India offered to remove even one armored corps division; those very tank divisions which worry Pakistan about India’s offensive capabilities.
India does not need as many tank divisions as it currently has; it needs to invest more in technology and other divisions and wings. Since the Indian military is undergoing massive modernization this is the right time to think of restructuring and reorganizing the various wings, especially the army. Would this lead Pakistan to reciprocate by removing an armored corps battalion and using the resources for other divisions and areas of its army? Pakistan, too, needs its tank divisions solely for a conventional war with India.
Over the years and especially recently India has offered unilateral concessions to all its other neighbors except Pakistan. India has offered lines of credit to all its smaller neighbors, except Pakistan. India has removed tariff and non-tariff barriers with regard to cotton and textiles imports from Bangladesh because the limited negative impact on Indian textile industry was a small price pay to pay for broader strategic goals. If India can offer these concessions to all its other neighbors then why not offer some to Pakistan?
All this does not mean that India should not discuss critical strategic issues like terrorism with Pakistan. Rather, this would help provide not only wider but more in-depth discussions between peers on these issues. This would also help broaden the discourse, especially in Pakistan. As Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai noted, India was willing to discuss Kashmir with Pakistan but Pakistan needed to undertake serious action against the militant groups on its own soil.
India and Indian leaders have repeatedly stated that normal relations with Pakistan are a vital Indian interest. India’s strategists believe that India’s neighbors are crucial to India’s security. If that is the case then the best way to ensure that is to strengthen that constituency within Pakistan which seeks the same.
Ideological states can only be countered by attacking their ideology from within. While the U.S. followed many policies to counter the Soviet Union, the most effective one was whereby people in the country were convinced that their system did not work and it had to be changed. Pakistanis are fighting an ideas battle within their own country: whether to move Pakistan towards a civilian democratic country at peace with its neighbors or continue to remain an ideological state where jihad plays a role in foreign policy.
India would benefit by getting out of the trap of reciprocity in the case of Pakistan to gain strategic advantage. India’s unilateral moves may not convince the hawks and conspiracy theorists in Pakistan about India’s intentions and capabilities. However, if it helps re-ignite and provide fuel to a debate within Pakistani society on ties with India and the future direction of Pakistan, India will have strengthened its hand just as the U.S. did in dealing with the Soviet Union during the era of détente.