Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Resumption of India-Pakistan Trade - Good News or Bad News?

With the noise of the US election rising to a crescendo, a development in a faraway part of the world is understandably going unnoticed. After sixty years, a trade route between India and Pakistan has tentatively opened. Reports by the Voice of America, The Guardian and The New York Times cover slightly different aspects of the story.

I have three simultaneous reactions to this development:

There's naive internationalist liberal me: "This is great news! Trade bonds between nations strengthen peace. When countries become economically interdependent, the chances for conflict between them recede. This is the first step towards peace in our time. How wonderful that India and Pakistan can finally enjoy normal relations! South Asia as a whole will now prosper."

Then there's paranoid me: "This isn't about trade between India and Pakistan. It's a lifeline to Indian-controlled Kashmir to help it support itself through trade with Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Never a big fan of India (in spite of the Indian taxpayer-funded largesse continuously poured into that province), Kashmir probably now sees a way to cement its ties to "the other side". It's a wedge that Pakistan is driving between India and Indian-controlled Kashmir. This is the economic unification of Kashmir at India's expense. There's nothing here for India or Indians to rejoice about."

Finally, there's geopolitically cynical me: "India is squandering the chance to do to Pakistan what Reagan's America did to the Soviet Union - exploit its bigger and faster-growing economy to bankrupt its military rival and dictate peace on its own terms. Why throw a lifeline to someone who doesn't like you? As Ray Kroc of McDonald's said, when you see a competitor drowning, you stick a hose down his throat. India should throw Kashmir out into the cold, even into Pakistan's waiting arms, then force the pyrrhic victor to come crawling back a few years later to sue for peace and beg for a chance to share in the prosperity of its (by then) superpower neighbour."

So what do I finally think? I don't know. A little of each of the above, I guess. One thing I'm sure about - Indians are too sentimental a race to elect a Reagan. Even the biggest hawks in the previous Hindu right-wing BJP government turned out to be doves on Pakistan, a reality that India's smaller neighbour cunningly understands and exploits. So fortunately for Pakistan, India will never press home an advantage even against a proven enemy.

Enemy? Surely that's a tad harsh? Well, Pakistan's civilian president blurted out the truth in a rare moment of candour (i.e., that India has never been a threat to Pakistan). If only the reverse was also true...

As always, I'm hopeful about peace in our time and all that, but not optimistic.

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