It is well-known that the Pakistani military controls Islamabad's foreign policy, particularly so relations with New Delhi. Indeed, it has often been said that the “hotter” the ties between the two neighbours, the more indispensable becomes the Pakistani military to that country's people and society. In other words, the importance of the status of the Pakistani armed forces in Pakistan is a direct function of the state of crisis in relations with India, which suggests that the Pakistani military would always like ties with India to be on the boil.
MENDING ITS FENCES?
If this reading is correct, what precisely has happened which has led the Pakistani armed forces to agree to put cooperation with New Delhi in the driver's seat as far as the conduct of Islamabad's foreign policy is concerned?
But is it correct to say that Islamabad is currently engaged in “mending” its fences with India? The most important recent piece of evidence in this direction is the decision to grant most-favoured (MFN) nation status to India which, if implemented effectively, will turn Islamabad's economic policy towards India on its head, so to speak. What makes the decision a crucial one, from the point of view of the further evolution of ties between the two neighbours, is that any disruption in the operation of the MFN status accorded to India would result in a severe trade disturbance, which is likely to throw a chunk of the Pakistani economic set-up off balance.
MOVE TO MFN STATUS
The Commerce Minister, Mr Anand Sharma, has spoken of a “paradigm shift” in the basis of Indo-Pakistani trade. He is absolutely right because, once the trade relations move on to the MFN-phase, it would be very difficult to rock the boat by, say, scrapping the “negative list”, and replacing it with the old “positive list” of tradable items, in view of the shock it would impart to the Pakistani export economy.
Further, it would become even more difficult to tamper with the MFN status after a few years, because of the (probable) exponential expansion in bilateral trade. The new bilateral trade target, after three years, has been pitched at $6 billion (up from the current $2.7 billion); the expectation is that the potential for the increase is closer to 10 times the official target, which would make the indispensability of maintaining MFN-based trade levels even greater.
SIGNAL OF CO-OPERATION
The MFN move, however, preceded by a visit to India by the Pakistani Commerce Minister — the first in more than 30 years — is just one of the changes that one sees in Islamabad's foreign policy profile.
On October 23, four Indian military personnel were detained by the Pakistani authorities when their helicopter accidentally crossed the Line of Control, an incident which was mutually settled in no time because of the “cooperation” extended by Islamabad. On October 11, Islamabad signalled its willingness to grant India “a passageway” to Afghanistan, not only to boost bilateral trade ties but also to “promote progress and prosperity in the whole region”, according to the Pakistani Commerce Minister. On November 4, Pakistan agreed to send a commission relating to the Mumbai terror attack, a move which had been hanging fire for the past six months.
Why is the Pakistani military allowing all this to happen? Is it because of the growing rift between Islamabad and Washington, on the one hand, and Beijing's unwillingness to provoke India beyond a point, on the other?
Whatever it is, there is little doubt that, if the present pattern in bilateral ties is allowed to strengthen, the principal beneficiaries will be none other than the people of India and Pakistan, who deserve it.