Two of every five people in the world live in South Asia. This fact alone makes it all but inevitable that the region shares a common destiny driven by engagement, connectivity, productivity and development. Yet, the region boasts some of the world’s poorest development indicators, threatening to retard overall global progress, at the heart of which is the Pakistan-India relationship. Or, rather, the lack of one.
Despite a shared past that allowed co-existence for thousands of years and deep social and cultural strands that still bind the region and its peoples in a pluralistic whole, the political trajectory of the region over the past several decades has wrought about damaging divisions, conflicts and insecurities whose momentum seems difficult to halt, let alone reverse. Even as Europe, Africa, South America and large swathes of central and east Asia have shrugged off centuries of blood, sweat and tears to fashion a game-changing new millennium, sulky Islamabad and Delhi continue to fail themselves and the world.
According to the State Bank of Pakistan, in 2016-17, despite worsening political relationship with India under Prime Minister Modi, Pakistan under Sharif increased its exports to India by 23 per cent to $286m. Imports from India fell by the same margin of 23 per cent to $958m — a bilateral trade of less than $1.3bn. This is puny compared to $71bn total trade conducted by Pakistan with the world in 2016-17.
Paradoxically, economic policy of Pakistan may be premised on avoiding free trade with India, Islamabad’s foreign and security policies are focused on being India-centric. Be it the security issues related to Afghanistan (‘influence of India’), political ties with the United States (‘parity with India’) or the military policies on nuclear arms (CTBT, FMCT, NPT, etc.) and military operations against terrorists (‘Indian hand in Balochistan and FATA’), Islamabad puts New Delhi at the centre of its narrative, discourse and negotiations with the world.
Islamabad refuses to horizontalise its trade interests between South Asia and Central Asia to serve as the lynchpin of the next great energy and transit hubs of the world with the potential for trillions of dollars in net economic benefits over the next two decades and is instead content with the verticalised CPEC and its $57bn cost that is actually mostly loans rather than income.
Even though Pakistanis are wont to nurse exaggerated grievances at perceived slights by the international community over the decades, from the outside looking in, it is perhaps difficult to make out who is more to blame for allowing the region to fail itself — Pakistan or India.
At the risk of oversimplification, if Pakistan alone was to blame, then India wouldn’t have been left alone for global partnerships until the turn of the new millennium to shape its progressive destiny despite choosing a pluralistic parliamentary democracy course for itself early on. And yet it managed to hold its own and slowly but surely emerged as the global star — other than China — of this millennium that everyone in the West and East now courts.
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On the other hand, despite choosing an autocratic and at times even despotic path for itself at odds with its own religious, ethnic and political pluralisms (being brutish with the Bengalis, exorcising the Ahmedis, demonising the Baloch and manipulating the Muhajirs, etc.) and nursing delusions of military grandeur, Pakistan mostly received political endorsement (support for repeated military coups) and military rewards (allowance to become a nuclear power) for its less than ideal behaviour. Things changed for the worse for Islamabad only at the turn of the century.
Contrary to what is taught to children in Pakistani school textbooks, Asghar Khan, the former air force chief, blames Pakistan for initiating all three wars against India whose adverse outcomes resulted in the establishment of a military nuclear programme that looms large at the heart of the country’s very existence and keeps the bilateral ties in knots.
Kashmir, protests Pakistan, is at the heart of its antagonistic position with India. While India’s terrible record of basic human rights violations in Kashmir, as attested by the country’s own intelligentsia, is deplorable, the public perception in Pakistan in recent decades that Islamabad-advocated plebiscite for the Kashmiris for their accession to Pakistan is the sole solution for them and the only reason the two nuclear-armed states are not friends, is being economical with the truth.
The Kashmir dispute with New Delhi may have been the fulcrum of Islamabad’s India policy in recent decades, but even as early as 1959, military ruler Ayub Khan told the American president that a plebiscite is not necessary but that any solution to Kashmir is fine that is acceptable to India, Pakistan and the Kashmiri people. In 2001, another military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, was ready to sign with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Agra a suzerainty formula for Kashmir that would have allowed for greater self-rule for Kashmiris in return for Pakistan dropping its demand for a plebiscite.
The terrible state of human development in the region may be blamed squarely on the situation in Kashmir but is in large part dictated by a dysfunctional relationship between Pakistan and India that is clearly rooted in the causes leading to Partition in 1947. This was subsequently fuelled by the digression from democracy by Pakistan which directly led to three wars with India, independence of Bangladesh (the demise of two-nation theory and Jinnah’s Pakistan that had two wings) in the 1970s and the nuclearisation of Pakistan in the 1980s.
But perhaps the fatal twist was the American-Soviet proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s (when jihad was not such a dirty word!) that allowed a seemingly irreversible critical mass to Pakistan’s security, intelligence and nuclear establishments to connect India with Afghanistan and further embellish a doctrine that requires an ever-increasing securitisation and militarisation of the national policies.
More than one elected prime ministers in Pakistan have paid steep prices for attempting to alter the status quo by infusing the zeitgeist of the new millennium that requires political engagement rather than confrontation, economic integration rather than protectionism and regional cooperation rather than proxy adventurism between Islamabad and New Delhi.
While nearly everyone in Pakistan pays the price for it on a daily basis, and have been alarmingly doing so for generations, few realise the true cost of a sustaining a sullen political neighbourhood by choosing to remain a hostage to history. Three in every five people on the planet living below the poverty line — who can barely afford one small meal a day — are primarily in India and Pakistan.
Other than central Africa, the world’s worst maternal and child mortality rates are in these two countries. School enrolment and dropout ratios are also the worst on the planet in this region outside of Africa. Pakistan has 25m school-going age children out of schools. India has consistently been the second largest buyer of arms in the world in the last decade with Pakistan also figuring in the top 10.
Nearly half of the billion people on the planet who don’t have toilets and defecate in the open are in India and Pakistan — 490m in India alone. It’s paradoxical, then, that there is so much negativity in common between these two nuclear-armed countries when what they really are fighting about is how different they imagine they are.
The inability of two of the world’s five largest countries in the world to be friends is not just their own failure to innovate bilateral politics and policies but also a spectacular failure of the international community to assist the region in fashioning a mutually-beneficial and sustainable relationship between the two through an even-handed brokering.
Jinnah may have helped partition the sub-continent in 1947 but even he said the relationship model for Pakistan and India he envisaged was the one between the United States and Canada — sovereign and unique but without a need for ideological walls; simply because history, geography and economics demand it.