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Magnanimity with Pakistan is bad policy

opinionMagnanimity with Pakistan is bad policy

For India, the Pakistan economy is so insignificant and irrelevant that hardly anyone will notice if there is no trade between them.

That distressingly familiar narrative is cropping up again, the one about normalising relations between India and Pakistan that have remained sort of frozen since 5 August 2019 when the Indian Parliament abrogated Article 370 that gave special status to Jammu & Kashmir. At a press conference in London last week, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Muhammad Ishaq Dar announced that Islamabad will “seriously” consider restoring trade ties with India. According to him, a majority of entrepreneurs and businessmen in Pakistan are eager to deepen trade with India. Predictably, the so called “peaceniks” on this side of the border have enthusiastically welcomed the gesture. For this ever optimistic (naïve) breed, “good neighbourly relations” with Pakistan is a Holy Grail that India must seek. For these “Aman Ki Asha” types, peace in South Asia is a good deal for India and the regime must pursue a strategy that ensures that kind of peace.

They may well have a point. No sane country doesn’t want peace and friendliness in the neighbourhood. But there are two issues that need to be highlighted here to show that India at the moment is better off without resuming trade ties with the neighbour. First is: why is Pakistan keen on resumption of trade ties? Second is the history of Pakistan stabbing India in the back every time it offers a concrete goodwill gesture to that benighted country. What makes the peaceniks think that Pakistan will not do the same in the future if diplomatic and trade ties are “normalised” and people to people ties too are restored? They will have no convincing answer except hope. Unfortunately, hope cannot be the basis for a strategic foreign policy.

First let’s see why Pakistan, after five years of itself cutting off trade ties and downgrading diplomatic relations, wants normalcy all of a sudden? The fact is that Pakistan is virtually a bankrupt nation that survives at the mercy of aid from friendly regimes and loans from global bodies like the International Monetary Fund. In fact, the Pakistani economy will be down on its knees unless the IMF approves and disburses $1.1 billion in April as part of a long-term bailout package. Pakistan has barely enough foreign exchange reserves to pay for about a fortnight of imports. For the last two years, retail inflation has been running in excess of 30%, literally breaking the backs of poor and even middle-class families. The Pakistani rupee is at record lows against the US dollar. And it struggles to maintain even a 3% GDP growth rate implying its per capita income in real terms is actually declining. The average Pakistani today is poorer than she was 40 years ago. Even as the military junta was busy overthrowing the then Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan in a de facto coup and throwing him behind bars, dozens of citizens died in stampedes for food. The country’s leaders have seen how India has bailed out crisis ridden Sri Lanka and Bangladesh with generous aid packages. Given the hostile relations with India, even Pakistani elders are not so deluded as to expect India to provide similar aid and assistance to the country.

But trade with India will enormously help Pakistan. Once a food surplus nation that was proud of wheat and rice exports, Pakistan has now become a food importing nation. Trade with India will help the food shortage epidemic in Pakistan to a significant extent. It would even benefit from cheaper Indian imports of other products and services. But Pakistan really has nothing to offer to India. The last year for which trade data between the two countries is available is 2018-19. As mentioned, Pakistan arbitrarily snapped trade ties with India after 5 August 2019. In 2018-19, total trade between the two was worth $2 billion or so. Let’s say trade goes back to that level. That would amount to barely 0.1% of India’s foreign trade. For India, the Pakistan economy is so insignificant and irrelevant that hardly anyone will notice if there is no trade between them.

The peaceniks offer another argument. They say helping out Pakistan in this moment of unprecedented crisis will generate a lot of goodwill in Pakistan, including among ordinary citizens. But is that based on reality or wishful thinking? There is no doubt that there is much bonhomie between the Pakistani and Indian diaspora living in other countries. After all, they share language, culture, cuisine and even faith (India has many more Muslims than Pakistan). But it is a different story altogether inside Pakistan. Decades of brainwashing and feeding hatred towards Indians and Hindus is so hard wired in the mind of the average Pakistani that she instinctively considers India to be an eternal and implacable enemy. In the streets of Pakistan, radicalised youth still nurture fantasies of integrating Jammu & Kashmir and even successfully pursuing “Ghazwa-E-Hind “. Never mind they have barely enough food to eat, and enough money to pay for petrol and electricity because of strict conditions imposed by the IMF before it disbursed part of a loan package last year. Even if India becomes generous and bails out the Pakistan economy as a grand goodwill gesture, the chances of radicalised Pakistanis starting to love India are next to zero.

Sure, there is a growing segment of Pakistani civil society that now says that Pakistan must stop this madness of treating India as an eternal enemy for its own sake. Many have also been pointing out how the decades old strategy of using cross border terrorism as an instrument of statecraft is now coming back to haunt Pakistan as terrorist groups wreak havoc in the country. These are so bad that just recently five Chinese engineers were killed in a suicide attack in Khyber Pakhtunwa. The grand infrastructure projects that China promised Pakistan now look as a chimera.

Yet, the only institution that matters in the country, the military, will not reverse its policy of bleeding India with a thousand cuts. The sole reason the military can exercise complete control over the country is for Pakistan to keep treating India as the eternal enemy. If relations between India and Pakistan reach the levels of relations between India and Bangladesh, there would be no need for Pakistan to sustain such a massive military. That’s not going to happen. In all likelihood, a grand goodwill gesture from India could almost certainly lead to a horrific terror attack.

As emphasised earlier, strategic foreign policy cannot be based on hope. Let Pakistan be.
Yashwant Deshmukh is Founder & Editor in Chief of CVoter Foundation and Sutanu Guru is Executive Director.

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