Partition Scars Slow Pakistan’s Trade Engine, Not India’s

With Indian Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to the United States came a sense of strengthened U.S.-India ties not seen in 15 years, but a decades-long defining issue of South Asian security still rests on the sidelines — the scars of 1947 when the subcontinent severed the shackles of British rule, and unstably became independent, ...


With Indian Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to the United States came a sense of strengthened U.S.-India ties not seen in 15 years, but a decades-long defining issue of South Asian security still rests on the sidelines — the scars of 1947 when the subcontinent severed the shackles of British rule, and unstably became independent, sovereign India and Pakistan. The ensuing decades saw massive migration, three deadly wars, militarism, communal violence, and antagonistic rhetoric at the highest levels of both states. The mutual distrust among the nuclear-armed rivals erected a tall wall that hindered human, political, and economic interaction.

With the ascent of Modi as prime minister, a business-minded leader, economic development seems to be getting a second wind in the region. Modi has started to venture to tear down those walls to transform South Asia, encouraging robust trade that could lift the subcontinent out of economic stagnation. Emphasizing his desire to develop India, Modi has put regional diplomacy as a top priority so as to revitalize regional trade and enhance economic integration, which would be crucial for India’s growth. This also offers an enormous opportunity and benefit to the entire region, but still one country may be an exception: Pakistan.

Pakistan is stuck now again in a cycle that has often hindered Indo-Pak rapprochement, which has almost become a formula. The recent fire exchanges at the Line of Control in Kashmir is a culmination of attempts to thwart rapprochement efforts between Pakistan and India in the past few months. A promising air that seemed to breathe new life into the bilateral relationship earlier this year is now being reversed. How did this happen?

First, Pakistan is going through a historic moment with a new kind of transition: the peaceful transfer of democratic power from national elections. This brought about a sense of optimism that the country may finally be crawling out of its cycle of military creep into politics. Secondly, India’s sweeping election that propelled Modi into the premiership raised expectations for a new stage in the often-hostile bilateral relationship. This mix of a conservative BJP government in Delhi and Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad was considered the best weather for warmer ties since past rapprochement efforts under similar conditions.

When he was in power in the late 1990s, Sharif pursued better ties with BJP-governed India. Concerned about the impact to Pakistan’s fragile economy, he was reluctant to conduct nuclear tests as a response to India’s. He was also actively trying to create a new dynamism in the relationship as symbolized in the historic 1999 Lahore Summit, a nuclear control treaty that was quickly ratified by both countries and one that also sought to build better confidence between the adversaries. Unfortunately, the strides toward warming ties were not well-received by the Pakistani military, which later that year acted independently in the Kargil War, a move that violated the Line of Control in Kashmir. General Pervez Musharraf later toppled Sharif and forced him into exile. For the Pakistani military, attempts by civilian leaders to reach out to India excessively are deemed a "red line" that should not be crossed. This kind of ambition pursued by a civilian leader in Pakistan has led to harsh consequences.

Despite this tale, the presence of Nawaz Sharif at Modi’s inauguration ceremony as Indian premier seemed to turn a new page of optimism, and hinted that this time it might be different. Add to the stage the high hopes and expectations placed on Modi from domestic and foreign audiences for a change in the protracted rift that has shaped South Asian politics for decades. Things were looking up. While trade relations between India and Pakistan were improving under the Pakistan People’s Party government led by Asif Ali Zardari, the historic visit by Sharif indicated increasing momentum. But again, Sharif’s intentions to ameliorate ties with Delhi were not received well by the Pakistani military. The crack started appearing later in August 2014 when the Pakistani High Commissioner, Abdul Basit, based in Delhi, a position equivalent to ambassador, met with a Kashmiri separatist leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. The provocative move, as Delhi perceived it, triggered a strong reaction from the Indian government, which called off the scheduled foreign minister-level talks. The honeymoon atmosphere was over. The prospect for better Indo-Pak relations, once again, suddenly vanished.

At the same time, ominous developments in Pakistan further shattered prospects for better ties with India. Cricket hero-turned politician Imran Khan, joined by Islamic scholar and politician Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, led his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) on a march to Islamabad, demanding the resignation of Sharif on the basis of election fraud from May 2013. While the link between the PTI’s protests and the military’s involvement is vague, it is clear the political turmoil that Khan’s protests generated gave the Pakistani military a perfect excuse to creep back into politics. As Sharif sought the help of the military to deal with intensifying political chaos, his government ceded important political powers over defense and foreign policy to the military. The once triumphant Sharif — who re-emerged after returning from exile, sparking hopes that Pakistan may steadily move towards better ties with India — now had his political capital dramatically eroded.

The military’s motive, which was not unlike the one in 1999, was crystal clear. The military was displeased with Sharif’s active attempts to seek warmer ties with India, a move that seemed to have gained increasing momentum after Modi’s inauguration. Veiled under the turmoil in Islamabad, Sharif’s credibility was eroded, depriving his capacity to further pursue his ambition in changing tides of South Asian enmity. The recent fire exchange between India and Pakistan in Kashmir reversed the slow march toward rapprochement.

For some, this may be business as usual in Pakistan. Since the creation of Pakistan as a nation-state, the Indian threat was one of the major justifications for having a strong military. A neighbor larger in land, people, and resources, India was perceived as a hostile threat to Pakistan’ existence with alleged intentions to dismantle the country.

The Pakistani military thus has a strong sense of purpose as the nation’s guardian, who preserves the independence and territorial integrity of the country, a narrative similar to other militaries’ with a strong grip on power from Cairo to Yangon and from Ankara to Jakarta in the past. For Pakistan, however, the diverse nature of the country with different ethnicities and languages, the inheritance of an autonomous and volatile buffer region, namely the Tribal Pashtun areas as a heritage of the British Raj, the disputed Kashmir regions and most importantly the independence of Bangladesh, all added up to the justification made by the military to have a stake in politics. Particularly, the inheritance of the Pashtun areas, still a contentious issue with Afghanistan and the independence of Bangladesh, generated fears in the Pakistani military of secessionist movements. These situations became the basis of the Pakistani military’s sense of purpose as well as its justification to intervene into politics whenever a civilian government is considered incapable of dealing with delicate national security issues, particularly regarding India.

Sharif’s move to reach out to Delhi was perceived as against Pakistan’s "national interest." This decision invited military intervention through different excuses as manifested in the chain of actions that resumed the unfortunate "business as usual" — strained tensions between the two countries, culminating in another rift in Kashmir.

The Pakistani military did not topple Sharif this time. It only eroded his political capital, undermining his authority in an attempt to prevent him from pursuing audacious policies such as a rapprochement with India. The military understands that a military coup could be counter-productive. The fact that a National Security Council was formed under Musharraf’s reign indicates how the military institutionalized its involvement into politics. This eliminates the necessity to intervene. Doing so would tarnish the military’s image. There were some changes in the way the military acted, but little changed in its traditional anti-India posture.

These developments may make one pessimistic about Pakistan’s future as the country descends into another cycle of military creep into politics. Before rushing to this view though, there are a few good reasons that might encourage Pakistan to break from this formula. The withdrawing of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2016 could pull Pakistan out from the AfPak political-military framework, which has locked Pakistan into the fight against extremism for more than a decade after 2001. Extremism in Pakistan and threats from groups such as Taliban Tehreek-e-Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) could not be ignored. However, the war in Afghanistan deprived Pakistan of the opportunity to project itself as a potential economic power, along with weak state institutions and corruption that hinders foreign investment. Pakistan’s preoccupation with its security concerns, including its involvement in Afghanistan, is also a reason.

Putting Pakistan in a broader regional spectrum, both as a South Asian nation and an Asian nation, could help outsiders imagine Pakistan as a potential market rather than a country under constant turmoil. As the war in Afghanistan winds down and the new Indian leadership envisages increased regional connectivity with more human and economic linkages within the region, now is a precious opportunity for Pakistan to crawl out of the barriers that have burdened its since 1947. In particular, Delhi’s enhanced leadership role is a sign that the geopolitics of the subcontinent may overcome the shackles of history by lowering the barriers erected in 1947, which have long hindered regional integration, an opposite phenomenon from the Middle East, where the borders are torn down in a different respect. If Pakistan fails to seize this opportunity, unable to move forward from partition that defined the Pakistani military’s mindset with deep suspicion towards India, it may end up becoming another missed opportunity for renewal.

Another major hurdle is the fact that Delhi is now showing little appetite for engaging Pakistan. India’s recent response to the Pakistani High Commissioner’s meeting with the Kashmiri leader in August is one testament. Moreover, there is the question of how India’s new leadership is perceived in Islamabad. While Delhi’s strong leadership in Modi and his government is a prerequisite for more regional engagement in South Asia, this may enflame fears in Pakistan over India’s possible "hegemonic ambitions."

Despite the complexity of Pakistan’s troubled politics and time-tested military creep into politics, often an on anti-India agenda, there is a glimmer of light. Increased connectivity can unleash economic and geopolitical potential embedded in South Asia, long inhibited by the scars of partition. This could be a breakthrough from the decades-long stagnant formula in regional politics. Mutual distrust and limited interaction in the region — as well as Pakistani civilian-military relationship, which has also hindered better ties between Islamabad and Delhi — can gradually give way to progress. It is not in the interest of Pakistan, South Asia, or the world for this country of over 190 million to be left in the trap of history as the rest of the region steps toward a better economic future.

Takuya Matsuda is a second-year student at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Takuya spent time in Iran and India for research this past summer. The piece is based on his findings in India.

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