Even as two civilian governments struggle to maintain their political hold in both India and Pakistan, recent developments indicate that both recognize that the Possibility of Peace trumps confrontation. This change of mood between two formerly hostile neighbors is a reflection of economic necessity in both countries and the need for civilian rather than military-dominated rule in Pakistan. A couple of weeks ago, while I was in India, the Foreign Ministers and Foreign Secretaries of both met in Islamabad and the focus appeared to be on opening up economic ties, even as conflict resolution proceeded on a somewhat slower track. The head of the leading Pakistan Peoples’ Party of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, called for the removal of visas for travel between the two countries.
If the reactions in New Delhi of Indian officials, journalists, and senior and retired military officials is representative of the general Indian population, there is deep support for this kind of Great Leap towards normalcy. The key is economic necessity. As a leading Indian economist explained to me, India desperately needs Pakistani cement for its rapidly growing economy, enough to install a conveyer belt system at the border to speedily clear shipments from Pakistan. The foreign ministers spoke of their continuing efforts to consummate a gas pipeline deal that would allow Iranian gas to flow through Pakistan to India; this despite US opposition to such trade with Iran. Pakistani businesses have already begun investing in warehouses and infrastructure along the border with India near Lahore, waiting for trade to open up.
Basic economic laws dictate that a country’s major trading partners are its immediate neighbors. Today, Pakistan’s major trading partner is it major military partner: the United States, some ten thousand miles away! It could learn from the Indian example of expanding its trade with neighboring China that is expected to rise from billion today to billion by 2010. In New Delhi, Indians speak wistfully of their trips to Pakistan to stock up, among other things with consumer goods likes ladies shoes. A strong Indian rupee goes far in Pakistan. For the huge Sikh population in the provinces that border Pakistan, there is tremendous potential for both trade and religious tourism: their major religious shrines are located inside Pakistan. If visa-free travel were allowed, Lahore that now has barely two major hotels might find that even 50 such hotels might be inadequate.
I raised the issue of visa-travel travel with President Pervez Musharraf, the architect of the diplomatic opening to India in recent years, and the then Director General Inter Services Intelligence and now army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in conversations over the past two years. Both recognized the potential benefits of such a move but expressed the fear that there would be opposition from the vocal but tiny religious groups that consider India the perennial “enemy”. Now that he is army chief, General Kayani is in a better position to lead from the front on this issue.
Now, as a new civilian leadership has emerged in Pakistan, led by peace makers Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Indian government is laying the grounds for fresh elections while facing tests in provincial polls, it may be time for leaders in India and Pakistan to create a South Asian Compact that would create prosperity for both. If they do this, both countries could reduce their crippling defence expenditures and better meets the vast unmet basic needs of their poorest populations.
Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within released in Pakistan and India in May and in the United States and United Kingdom in June. He can be reached at www.shujanawaz.com