Getting the optics right is one among a government’s many imperatives. The withdrawal of Most Favoured Nation status to Pakistan is a matter of optics, to be seen as doing something decisive, an immediate suppressant to the incontinent outpourings of a hurt nation. While the government’s move may not be vacuous, it is essential to realise that the step itself means nothing.
First of all, Pakistan little needs MFN status. It exports less than half a billion dollars of goods to India – in 2017-18, it exported $488 million, mostly fruits and nuts and some minerals. In the same year, India’s exports to Pakistan totalled $1.92 billion, of which $544 million came from cotton.
If Pakistan, in retaliation, decides to buy less from India, we will lose more skin than they do. True, the economically weaker Pakistan could be hurt more by the excoriation, but the country’s hat is filling up. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, badly bruised in the Jamal Khashoggi murder affair, is on a mission to ingratiate himself with anyone willing to shake hands with him. Ahead of his visit to Pakistan, bin Salman is offering Pakistan $6 billion worth of freebies, half in deposits and the rest in deferred oil payments. Pakistan won’t miss the loss of exports to India much.
But the uselessness of the ‘withdraw MFN status’ move ought to be seen against a bigger backdrop. To decry Pakistan whenever there is a terror attack in India may provide cathartic relief, but it is really barking up the wrong tree. No denying that the roots of terror are firmly in Pakistan’s soil but there is little evidence to show that Pakistan’s official establishment is behind it. It is often not even the ISI. The dovish former Pakistan Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani writes in his ‘Why can’t we just be friends?’ that ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha told him about 26/11, “ log hamare thaey, operation hamara nahin tha ” (they were Pakistanis but the operation was not ours). If you want to break the back of terrorism, hysteric calls to ‘teach Pakistan a lesson’ hardly helps. It is like twisting the arm of a man whose hands are already tied.