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January 3, 2016

Show me the money


January 3, 2016

If there is any city in Pakistan likely to reward an impromptu decision to snack, that city would be Lahore. Seen in that light, the decision of one Narendra Modi to stop by Jati Umra for a quick nibble seems eminently sensible. Had his Modiness stopped in Islamabad instead, the gastronomic (and diplomatic) consequences could have been disastrous.

On a more serious note, the Indian PM’s visit was, to say the least, unexpected. At the genteel lunch party being hosted by my parents, reactions to his impromptu arrival ranged from stunned stares to muffled oaths and fits of spluttering as half-eaten egg sandwiches went astray.

Indeed, it was not until the Indians had come and gone that the usual trolls ventured out onto Twitter. Presumably, the intervening period had been spent in desperately seeking instructions from the concerned quarters. And presumably the concerned quarters were as perplexed as the rest of us. I mean how do you go from spittle-flecked denunciations of Pakistani treachery to walking hand in hand like a pair of idle Pindi bwoys?

Oh well. Ours not to wonder why and all that jazz. The question now is what comes next.

I know that the eternal question of Kashmir is not going to get solved any time soon. But what opening up trade? Is that a realistic option? And if not, why not?

I am neither an economist nor a trade specialist. I do, however, believe in the free movement of both goods and people. And if I can be allowed a completely anecdotal argument, my friend Savail Hussain (who makes writing instruments for a living) assures me that if only he was allowed to freely export his wares to India, he would make out like a bandit. I also know that just before the BJP won the last elections, the current Pakistani regime had successfully negotiated a trade agreement with the then Indian government, which agreement was then never signed because of: (a) fauji pressure; (b) palpitations within Pakistan’s coddled community of industrialists; (c) not so subtle hints from the BJP wallahs that such a deal should be reserved till after the Indian elections; and/or (d) an international Zionist conspiracy.

Whatever. The question is not why free trade didn’t happen two years ago. The question is whether it should happen now. And so far as I am concerned, the answer is most emphatically yes.

As I’ve already said, I’m not an economist. Having added that caveat, let us at least generally agree that getting people to invest in Pakistan is a desirable thing. And from that perspective, open access to Pakistani markets via India is a game-changer.

There is a brilliant scene in Roger Altman’s movie, ‘The Player’ in which a desperate writer is pitching a script called ‘Goldie goes to Africa’. The gist of the story is that Goldie Hawn goes to Africa and is found by a tribe of small people which decide to worship her. “It’s like ‘The Gods must be Crazy’,” says the writer, “except the Coke bottle is an actress.” And the studio guy sagely nods his head and responds, “Right, It’s ‘Out of Africa’ meets ‘Pretty Woman.’”

The point of that segue is that investors (normally) like to have some idea of where their money is going. And the best way of communicating familiarity to a potential investor is by comparing their potential investment to something the mark already knows. Most people don’t like making great leaps of faith. They prefer baby steps.

Right now, international investment has to fly in to Pakistan. This means the guy making the decision is most likely sitting one or more plane rides away; Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, London, New York, Silicon Valley – take your pick. The important thing about these cities is that they look and feel nothing like Pakistan. Each of them offers a wonderful place for rich people to live and to spend their money. But when you’re sitting in London, Lahore is not even on your horizon. Lahore is not where the cool money goes to party. Lahore is just some dusty, dingy third-world dump somewhere way the hell out there, completely indistinguishable from a multitude of other fly-ridden dumps.

Now compare our hypothetical London based investor to a Delhi or Bombay based investor. The Bombay-wallah looks across the water to Karachi and sees a reflection of his own city. He sees the same laws, the same dysfunctionalities and the same communal networks. Similarly, the Delhi-wallah looks across the border to Lahore and sees a mirror image of his city. And like the Delhi-wallah, the international investor who has already made a commitment to India requires markedly less persuasion to investigate an opportunity in Pakistan than his colleague ensconced on Wall Street.

To use an analogy, the difficult part of getting into space is escaping gravity. Once you’re already in space, moving from one orbit to another is relatively easy. Similarly, getting money out of one of the major financial hubs is a pain. But once money has already escaped the gravitational attraction of its original location, moving it from one third world country to another is a lot less difficult. In simpler terms, if you open up the border with India, your money will no longer have to fly in: it will now be able to walk in.

Beyond the economic rationale, there is a broader social issue as well. The existential fear of India which has driven our foreign policy for the past 68 plus years rests on the frankly insulting assumption that we Pakistanis cannot be trusted with freedom, that if exposed to too much India we will somehow mutate into vegetable-loving Hindus.

This fear is idiotic. The Muslim demand for a separate homeland arose after 1,200 years of commingled living between Hindus and Muslims. If a thousand plus years of neighbourliness only resulted in the desire to have separate states, giving visas on arrival to Indian travellers is unlikely to reverse Partition.

In any event, the old vision of a Pakistan as a hermetically sealed, mono-cultured, test-tubed, purely Islamic baby is now dead. Most of the country now has access to cable television just like most of the country has access to the internet. As a result, while our physical borders have remained unchanged our cultural barriers disappeared a while ago. We don’t share the same land as India any more than we used to earlier. But we do now share the same airspace. And guess what, the country hasn’t collapsed.

My point is that Pakistani housewives can watch six hours of Indian saas-bahu kay dramay every day without feeling the urge to put a bindi on their foreheads and run screaming for salvation towards Akhand Bharat. Similarly, our local Lotharios may want to watch every movie starring Salman Khan but they still live and die for this country like the rest of us.

As I have written before, I have never known any homeland besides this Pakistan. And neither has the vast majority of my fellow Pakistanis.

I would like to go shopping in Connaught Place. I would like to eat bhelpuri in Bengali Market. I would like to go stay at the fabulous hotel my friend Sumant Batra has opened in Uttarakhand. But after that, I will want to come home. Trust me.

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Twitter: @laalshah

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