India’s external affairs minister S.M. Krishna, who is in Pakistan on a three-day visit, will meet his Pakistani counterpart in Islamabad on September 8. Their meeting will review the progress of the post-Mumbai resumed composite dialogue, which covers all the main bilateral areas of interaction and chart the way forward.
The two foreign ministers will also preside over the little known Joint Commission, which seeks to promote cooperation in education, information, IT & telecom, health, agriculture, tourism, science and technology and environment.
The very resumption of the dialogue marks an improvement and a reduction of tension. On a major issue of interest to India — trade — there has been progress due to significant flexibility by Pakistan, despite the fact that India, with its larger industrial base and economy of scale, will benefit more. The only concrete outcomes in this latest round could be a new visa agreement and another between the National Council of the Arts of the two countries.
India’s main focus is on terrorism and it expects Pakistan to do more in this regard. The pace of progress in the Pakistani courts against those accused of involvement in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack is for India the litmus test. When Pakistan asks for progress in the 2007 Samjhauta train blast in India, suspected to be caused by indigenous extremists, in which many Pakistanis were killed, the Indian response is that the two are not comparable.
In Pakistan, the mood is somber. There has been no progress towards any resolution of the main disputes of Kashmir, the Siachin Glacier, the Sir Creek sea boundary and the water issues.
A number of other developments have been disappointing. Bilateral engagements between the two countries in international forums used to be marked by acrimony. That has now been replaced by a degree of restraint.
However, India has resumed its tone of criticism, implicitly accusing Pakistan of interference in Afghanistan, which has led to Pakistan raising the issue of Indian use of Afghanistan for destabilisation. At every opportunity India terms Pakistan epicentre of terrorism. The joint anti-terror mechanism has been dropped by India, which now prefers the media to quiet diplomacy and exchanges of information, which stand a better chance of getting results.
Pakistan has never voiced objections to international involvement in the many upriver dams in the part of Kashmir under India’s control. However, now that Pakistan is proceeding with its much-needed Basha Dam to improve the lives of Kashmiris and for flood control and water conservation, India has pressured the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to withdraw their vital funding on the ground that it is in a disputed territory. Indian visas, never easy for the normal Pakistani wanting to visit relatives or performing pilgrimage, have become even more difficult than European visas.
It goes without saying that progress in bilateral relations depends on the level of trust between two countries. The perception in Pakistan is that India’s Pakistan policy parameters are poised between its wanting a weak, internationally isolated and compliant neighbour and apprehensions that going too far in that direction may lead to its destabilisation with an unpredictable blowback.
Pakistanis feel that an economically stronger India backed by the United States and its Western allies no longer want to meaningfully improve ties with Pakistan beyond trade and countering terrorists. However, they also believe that it is important to continue to try to improve bilateral relations so that the people of Pakistan are not sidetracked by an atmosphere of tension from tackling vital internal problems and issues.
Though India is doing better economically, both countries face common challenges — be it poverty, energy, crops productivity or water stress. Perhaps evolving cooperation in the soft areas governed by the Joint Commission can make a start in this direction in view of the many common agricultural, health and technology constraints faced by both countries.
Good relations between the two countries will unlock vast opportunities in all fields, including socioeconomic development, but progress in relations has been painfully slow. It is time to explore ways to take India-Pakistan bilaterals out of the slow lane.
The writer, a former diplomat, has led Pakistan’s delegations with talks with India on Nuclear & Conventional CBMs and Counterterrorism