The ‘thawing process’ in Indo-Pak relations which appeared to have begun with the sudden announcement in end February when the DGMOs of both nations announced ceasefire on the LoC and expressed desire to implement in letter and spirit the 2003 Ceasefire Agreement came to an equally sudden end when Imran Khan’s Pakistan enacted comedy of errors which many refer to as a ‘flip-flop’ or ‘Khan’s U-turn’.
The statements emanating from Pakistan in the month of March especially during the stage-managed Islamabad Security Dialogue raised a ray of hope in improvement of extremely bitter relations between the two countries that was adversely affecting not only the bilateral relations but the entire South Asian region as well. The trigger for all this was provided by the worsening economy of Pakistan which many economists also referred to as “on verge of collapse.”
It emerged from the Islamabad Security Dialogue that the Islamist nation has realized the mistake it made in investing heavily in geopolitics at the cost of geo-economics which has led to the present economic crisis. It also realized that it was paying a heavy price for its unilateral decision to suspend all trade with India post the events of 05 August 2019 in relation to Kashmir, a bone of contention between the two neighbours termed as it’s “jugular vein” by hostile Pakistan.
It is a well-known fact that anti-India sentiments form the bed rock of Pakistan’s internal and geopolitics which has been exploited to their advantage by the political and military leadership to come out of various adversities faced by them. “It grows and diminishes with the requirements of Pakistan’s foreign policy,” according to Khurram Husain, a Pakistani business journalist. It may have benefitted Rawalpindi that dictates nation’s India Policy rather than Islamabad but definitely made no economic sense.
Hence, it was music to the ears when at the Islamabad Dialogue, Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa talked of a shift in Pakistan’s strategy from Geopolitics to Geo-economics. It received support from the Prime Minister Imran Khan who talked of making Pakistan a gateway to the Central Asian Republic nations’ economy and also act as a bridge between the South Asian and Central Asian economies.
Realising that his nation’s economy was in doldrums it made better economic sense to buy goods urgently needed by his country from where they were available at cheaper rates. Hence PM Imran Khan wearing the hat of nation’s Commerce and Finance Minister as well signed on a note to purchase cotton and sugar from India thus setting in motion reversal of his earlier decision. Pakistan’s newly appointed Finance Minister Hammad Azhar announced in Islamabad, “In our neighbouring country, in India, the price of sugar is much lower than in Pakistan, so we have decided to open sugar trade with India, to the limit of 500,000 tonnes in the private sector.”
He also announced a ban on the import of raw cotton from India would also be lifted “by the end of June”. “There is a large demand for cotton in Pakistan right now. Our exports have increased in textiles and the cotton crop was not good last year. So, we allowed imports of cotton from all over the world, but it is not allowed from India and that causes a direct impact on [small and medium enterprises].” Another contributory factor was the ban on Chinese Xinxiang cotton and products made thereof by the US and EU nations, a major source for the local industry. Year-on-year, the price of sugar has risen by more than 17 percent, causing a great resentment against the Imran government.
The announcement was made by him in his capacity as the head of Economic Coordination Committee which earlier had given a green signal to the proposal. Though there was no official response from the Indian side, for those following the ‘thawing process’ it was a welcome decision.
In a classic case of “left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing,” followed the unfortunate cabinet decision of deferring the trade announcement and holding it hostage to oft-repeated insistence by Pakistan of “no improvement in Indo-Pak relations till abrogation of Article 370 is repealed.” Why it is termed as a comedy of errors is that Imran Khan during the Cabinet meeting questioned the Finance Minister as to who authorised him to resume trade with India? Finance Minister had no option but to name Imran Khan.
The U-turn Khan lost no time in toeing the line of the hardliners in the cabinet led by the Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who felt short-changed for not being consulted by the PM before allowing such an important measure. Pressure from China, which naturally is peeved due to ban on its cotton, is also believed to be another causative factor.
The flip-flop clearly indicates that Imran Khan hardly wields any power and is incapable of ensuring unanimity even within his cabinet let alone a national consensus. Even more surprising is the audacity of the hardliners to take on the Army Chief, a rarity in Pakistan politics. Pakistan Army is very keen for the thaw in relations between the two neighbours because it needs a breathing space and time to rejuvenate the morale of its army which has been badly battered by the Indian Army on the LoC. Dwindling economy and burden of repayment of loans is also adversely affecting the army’s upgradation and modernization program.
It explains the Army Chief’s keenness for shift towards geo-economics, may be more out of compulsion rather than conviction. But certainly, he failed to change the mind-set of hardliners in the Army or he has lost his clout since he is on extension, a decision not gone off well with the other ambitious general officers. The sum total of the entire episode is that Pakistan is not yet ripe to give up its belief of India being an existential threat. For how long Pakistan can afford to behave like an ostrich?
As of now, the proposed shift from geopolitics to geo-economics appears merely to be a loud thinking without evolving a consensus. It would need serious ground work to fructify into a virtual reality. Till Pakistan readies to walk the talk, it would make a prudent economic sense to let the “thawing process” continue and not hold it hostage to a single point agenda. The U-turn by Pakistan clearly demonstrates that how geopolitical considerations — rather than economic or rational — drive policymaking in Pakistan.
-Brig. Vet. Anil Gupta