The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
The slowing down of the Pakistan-India normalisation process has gone unnoticed at a time when public attention in the country is understandably focused on pressing internal issues and the upcoming elections. Even though the bilateral dialogue is not suspended, a noticeable cooling in relations has been evident in the last couple of months. This reinforces the start-stumble pattern of diplomatic engagement that has long characterised the relationship.
A combination of factors has contributed to slackening in the pace of normalisation. They include steps taken by India in the wake of recent incidents across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir, onset of the election season in Pakistan and the consequent wait-and-see stance adopted by the Indian government, which is also under mounting political pressure ahead of its own elections.
The ‘pause’ in diplomatic engagement between the two countries is thus the outcome of several factors. But the principal reason is the way India responded to the border clashes in January. The flare-up of tensions saw the usual exchange of diplomatic demarches and accusations between the two countries.
Much of the hawkish public rhetoric came from India’s military and political leadership rather than their Pakistani counterparts. Similarly the Indian media’s often frenzied coverage of border hostilities contrasted sharply with the Pakistani media’s muted response.
Delhi rejected Pakistan’s offer for talks at the foreign minister level to resolve issues underlying the LoC stand-off. More significantly Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared on January 19 that it would no longer be “business as usual” with Islamabad, and he cited the beheading of an Indian soldier – vehemently denied by Pakistan – as the rationale. Other Indian leaders echoed this line.
Delhi then took a number of steps to make good on these declarations. It cancelled a meeting on the Tulbul Navigation Project/Wullar Barrage between the water secretaries of the two countries that was scheduled for the last week of January. Indian officials attributed this to “scheduling issues” but it was apparent that the real reason was different.
Other actions followed. India suspended the visa liberalisation agreement signed last September between the two countries and refused to set any new date for its implementation. Cultural events involving Pakistani artists in Delhi were called off while India’s sports authorities sent back Pakistani hockey players citing “extraordinary circumstances”. Visas were also declined to Pakistani participants of Track II discussions due to take place in Delhi in February and March.
All of this served to signal what India’s Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid announced at the peak of the LoC tensions – that engagement with Pakistan would be “impacted” even if there would be no “total freeze” on diplomatic interactions. While trade and travel across the LoC, halted by India on January 10 was later revived, the cooling in relations was perceptible.
Most significantly the third round of the composite dialogue seems to have stalled. No dates were set for the series of meetings on the eight point agenda that constitutes the dialogue process. Only on one of these issues was a meeting convened, and that too before the LoC stand-off. The commerce secretaries met in Islamabad on September 20-21, 2012 to open the third round of talks.
On other issues – Sir Creek, Siachen, counterterrorism, friendly exchanges and humanitarian affairs, meetings have not been scheduled. According to the pattern established by the previous two rounds, talks are due between now and June/July on these issues as well as Kashmir and peace and security, which is discussed at the foreign secretary level. The third round is supposed to conclude with a meeting of foreign ministers to review the progress made.
The fact that five months after the commerce secretaries met, dates have not been set on the other segments of the dialogue indicates that normalisation efforts are at a standstill. The foreign ministry recently conveyed to the Indian envoy in Islamabad that there was a growing perception that the peace process was slowing down and this urged finalisation of dates for the third round. The response from Delhi was that this would now have to wait till the end of parliament’s budget session, which means May.
Meanwhile, Pakistan too delayed conferring the formal status of Most Favoured Nation to India. For over a year Islamabad had indicated it would grant India MFN status by the end of 2012 once its concerns over India’s non-tariff barriers (NTBs) were addressed and domestic consensus built to support this step.
In September 2012 three Memorandums of Understanding were signed by the commerce secretaries, which sought to meet some of Islamabad’s concerns on India’s restrictive trade practices. But as the Pakistani side pointed out in September there were other NTBs that also needed to be removed by India. They included bottlenecks in customs clearance and other formal and informal hurdles that prevent Pakistani products from entering the Indian market.
Lack of adequate preparation by the government on MFN created further difficulty, which then became the key reason for delay on moving forward. In a cabinet meeting in January, Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf is reported to have asked why the MFN decision had not yet been implemented. He was told that three key stakeholders – agriculture, textile and other industry groups – had serious concerns and reservations on pressing ahead because India’s more restrictive import regime failed to provide them a level trade regime. It was also pointed out that unfair competition would undermine all these sectors.
In a subsequent meeting at the foreign ministry, representatives from the concerned ministries reiterated that these three stakeholders had not been consulted. The commerce ministry had evidently set the December 2012 deadline for MFN implementation based on political rather than economic considerations. India’s heavy subsidies to its agricultural sector loomed large in this discussion and the implications of this for Pakistan’s economy if the government went ahead without adequate safeguards and the required commitments from Delhi.
With elections looming, the government was not going to risk alienating key economic sectors or provoke political controversy by pressing ahead on this front. Spokesmen of these lobbies not only became vocal about their concerns but also started making a public case in the media for why their apprehensions needed to be addressed prior to finalising the MFN arrangement.
As India’s main priority in the bilateral dialogue is on promoting trade and economic ties, Delhi may have seen Islamabad’s inability to press ahead on MFN as another reason not to move on other areas of the dialogue. Other than terrorism, the other issues on the agenda are of greater interest to Pakistan rather than India. This also explains why all the contentious issues remain deadlocked.
The onset of the election season in Pakistan may be an additional reason behind Delhi’s ‘go-slow’ posture. While elections in India are not due until 2014, the political scene there is also heating up with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) already in aggressive campaign mode. Electoral politics in both countries will likely slowdown the momentum of the past two years and limit the chances for significant progress in the months ahead.
Even so both countries have a mutual interest in keeping normalisation on track, however slow and incremental this might be. For Pakistan it is important to continue with efforts to stabilise relations with India. To pursue that objective Islamabad also has to consider what is the best diplomatic strategy to follow that yields results – not just more process – on issues of priority concern for Pakistan.
This, however, will now be a task for the next government to undertake.