“I cannot understand the time, energy and cost spent in maintaining a bad relationship”, a leading Indian businessman said in Delhi yesterday when he opened a seminar on building a good relationship with strong economic ties between India and Pakistan, South Asia’s two fractious nuclear power neighbours.
Salman Bashir, a former Pakistan foreign secretary and now the high commissioner in Delhi, told the seminar that it was an “extremely delicate” job to manage the two countries’ bilateral relationship – it needed “vision” and “leadership” in both countries.
That vision and leadership was sadly lacking over the previous three days when Pakistan’s aggressive and voluble interior minister, Rehman Malik, visited India and spent time and energy ensuring that the relationship remained bad.
He came to Delhi to sign an agreement on visas for businessmen, tourists and others that should improve access between the two countries, and he also made various security-related pledges (that Pakistan might or might not honour). But he soured the relationship with repeated jibes and half-truths that played well in the Pakistan media (and probably earned him praise from the army), but infuriated his hosts and enabled India’s sensationalist media and foreign policy hawks to fuel anti-Pakistan sentiment.
Such behaviour at a time when political leaders of both countries are trying to build amicable relations is counterproductive. It strengthens anti-Pakistan public opinion in India, where there is deep distrust about the real motives of the country’s army and intelligence agencies.
The weekend’s events graphically illustrated the good and the bad in relations between countries, whose people have strong family and emotional ties, despite three wars and one near-war since 1947 plus potentially nuclear confrontations, and multiple deaths caused by a disputed border in Kashmir and Pakistan-generated terrorism.
Both countries’ top leaders, businessmen, and many others, want to move ahead and normalise relations, probably accepting that the primary issue of the disputed Line of Control quasi-border in Kashmir is unlikely to be settled in the foreseeable future. Informal talks in 2007 produced a soft-border solution with a withdrawal of troops and a degree of devolved government on both sides, but that was never approved by the army and other hard line lobbies in either country. It is not feasible now because India could not accept an open border when Pakistan is wracked by Taliban terrorism.
In India, Manmohan Singh, the prime minister has been saying for more than two years that India “cannot realise its full [economic] development potential unless we have the best possible relations with our neighbours – and Pakistan happens to be our largest neighbour”. That has led him, in the eyes of sceptics in India’s external affairs and home ministries and elsewhere, to be too accommodating when Pakistan is not taking real action against leaders of groups linked to terrorism such as attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and on the Indian parliament building in 2001.
The prime minister was almost certainly responsible for Malik being invited by Sushilkumar Shinde, India’s new home minister, even though others in the government opposed the visit, agreeing with former home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram’s view that India should not indulge Malik and provide a public platform for his habitual provocative behaviour.
Pakistan’s leaders and senior officials talk about the need to “let’s forget the past” and “put the past behind us”, and say that all the country’s leaders, including the army and military intelligence, see the need for neighbourly peace because of the heavy toll that ideologically based militancy and terrorism has taken on the country. Malik echoed that line in a rambling but carefully targeted hour-long extemporary lecture at Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation on Sunday. He talked about how extremism and terrorism – and a sensitive mix “of religion and poverty” – had begun when Pakistan “wisely or unwisely” joined the America in resisting the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
Salman Bashir told the seminar yesterday that Pakistan saw the need for good and stable relations” and that “we have the will to work the relationship” That echoes the views of Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s 35-year old personable foreign minister, (right, in Delhi, July 2011) but her charm does not have such a lasting impact on Indian public opinion as Malik’s brash approach.
From the moment he landed in Delhi, Malik made a series of provocative statements. He inexplicably linked the Mumbai terror attacks with the 1991 demolition of a Indian mosque at Ayodhya (which sparked anti-Muslim riots), and claimed that an Indian army captain who was captured by Pakistan troops and tortured during a 1999 border war might have died because of the “weather”.
He also obfuscated and misled the Indian government about how Pakistan has handled allegations of masterminding the Mumbai attacks against Hafiz Saeed, leader of the Lashkar e Taiba terrorist organisation, who has been freed from jail by Pakistan courts.
Malik also cast doubt on terrorist evidence sent by India to Pakistan, prompting M.J.Akbar, an Indian editor and columnist, to note that Bashir, when he was foreign secretary, “dismissed Indian evidence provided by Home Minister P. Chidambaram as ‘mere literature’.”
Alongside all this, some progress is being made in normalising relations between the two countries. In addition to the visa agreement, India decided last year to allow foreign direct investment from Pakistan, and is awaiting the implementation of most-favoured national trading status (which it gave Pakistan 15 years ago). Bilateral trade officially totals only some $2.5bn a year, plus perhaps another $3bn in informal links routed through the Gulf.
There is a target of $6-8bn, but that is unlikely to be realised because policy decisions are rarely implemented fully or quickly and there are only two cross-border airline flights a week – a fact that illustrates the tortuous relations. Movement on other initiatives such as opening bank branches is slow, despite big demand in both countries for the other’s goods, as has been shown by the brisk business when Pakistani companies attend trade fairs in India
The best that can be expected in the foreseeable future is an improvement of these sort of people-to-people links and economic ties. There is no chance of the Line of Control being agreed in the foreseeable future, and military sensitivities on both sides make it difficult to settle two isolated border issues at Sir Creek on the maritime border (between Gujarat and Sindh) and the Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas.
But above all, there is a need for Pakistan to show it is dealing with those involved with terrorism in India, especially the Mumbai attack – as Manmohan Singh bluntly told Malik during a brief meeting. That might seem over-optimistic at a time when Pakistan is unable to quell terror attacks in its own cities, but Indians will not trust the Islamabad leadership till it demonstrates that it is sincerely doing its best.
Malik’s visit and prevarications had the reverse effect because he appeared to be taunting India. There seems therefore to be no end to what Sunil Munjal of the Hero group called “the time, energy and cost spent in maintaining a bad relationship”.