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Opinion

September 27, 2018
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Peace for a change

Opinion

September 27, 2018

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Wish they were on leave last Friday! But, alas, they were not. And a few hours of saber-rattling later, those helming India and Pakistan had ensured that the two South Asian neighbours won’t be talking to each other.

After winning the July 25 elections, Prime Minister Imran Khan had promised to meet every step India took with “two steps” from Pakistan. But, courtesy the latest war of words initiated by New Delhi, the two countries have taken so many steps backwards that they are highly unlikely to get back to even the pre-Friday normal – a state of no peace, no war – until India has installed a new government after polls next year.

Talks are a way to thrash out issues warring parties shout themselves hoarse over. The ‘In’ tray of both India and Pakistan is full to the brim, while the ‘Out’ one empty. This is so because they have avoided sitting across the table to dispose them off. The latest attempt by Pakistan to have its top diplomat – Shah Mahmood Qureshi – meet and have talks with his Indian counterpart – Sushma Swaraj – has been scuttled by India.

First came a warning that the July 27 meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA should not be taken as talks. The caution had just tickled the funny bones of the Twitterati, who called two people facing each other and not talking to one another ‘romantic’, when an Indian external affairs statement told the media that even the no-talks meet had been cancelled.

Jingoism held sway until Khan, who had taken a jibe at the cancellation of the Qureshi-Swaraj meeting, told government servants in Lahore that Pakistan’s quest for better relations with India aimed at bringing the people of the Subcontinent out of poverty via trade activity.

According to a World Bank report, trade between India and Pakistan stands at a mere $2 billion, which without trade barriers could reach $37bn. The report, ‘A Glass Half Full: The Promise of Regional Trade in South Asia’, says the lack of normal bilateral trade relations between the two countries affects the formation or deepening of regional value-chains in various high-value trading sectors. The report highlights, among key factors, India and Pakistan maintaining a long list of items on which no tariff concessions are granted.

The report says that another barrier to bilateral trade is the proliferation of NTMs (non-tariff measures), some of which take the form of non-tariff barriers, such as port restrictions. Another factor impeding bilateral trade in goods and services, as well as FDI, is the encumbered visa regime that India and Pakistan have created for each other, which restricts the mobility of people between the two countries.

Continued political tensions and lack of normal trade relations between India and Pakistan have cast a shadow over cooperation efforts within South Asia, contributing to the lack of progress in the regional cooperation agenda of Saarc and Safta, the report says. The religious tourism potential between the two countries is in no way small.

India and Pakistan badly need talks for themselves and for the region on all issues, most importantly Kashmir. The two nations and people of all other member countries of the Saarc – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka – feel they are hostage to the inimical relations between India and Pakistan.

No détente is in the works. Any future talks between diplomats of the two countries for tangible achievements should follow a series of quiet meetings between their interlocutors. An immediate attempt should be made to de-escalate tension. An opportunity is at hand. Swaraj and Qureshi will attend the Saarc Council of Ministers’ meeting in New York on September 27. Let there be no one-on-one between them. And no handshake either!

Couldn’t they find an excuse for amity, for a change? Couldn’t they at least break bread together at the lunch attended by the foreign ministers of all South Asian countries to feed peace prospects back home? Or even an exchange of a smile would do.

The writer is a print, broadcast and online journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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