Exactly four years ago, the two sub-continental rivals came to the brink of a war that could have re-written the fate of a fifth of humankind, possibly for even worse. After the unprecedented Indian aggression post-Pulwama of sending fighter jets in Pakistan’s mainland was met with a resolute military response, the former received a deserved reality check. Subsequent big-power interventions helped defuse a crisis that momentarily gripped a world that had stopped paying attention to this long-running nuclear-armed rivalry.

While the then Pakistan government kept looking for a breakthrough in bilateral relationship after the tense standoff, India’s Modi went on to win a re-election (on an anti-Pakistan platform, among other things) few months later in May 2019 and further hardened his stance towards Pakistan. Since then, except for a border ceasefire in early 2021, not much ice has melted on the two sides. Mostly, it is due to Modi government’s Kashmir annexation in August 2019 that strip this disputed region of its autonomy.

While the Kashmir annexation was met with strong condemnation by Pakistan’s political and security leadership, it has been observed that the desire to mend fences is still alive. Most mainstream political parties support normalization of trade ties with India for both a) economic reasons to reduce prices and boost employment and b) strategic reasons to create, over time, a friendly atmosphere to resolve the Kashmir dispute. But past efforts have been in vain. Zardari tried, but Mumbai derailed him. Nawaz went out of his way,only to be ousted. Khan had the best chance, but he inexplicably got cold feet in the end.

What matters eventually is the security establishment, which, during the Khan years, seemed to support trade normalization in order to reduce border tensions and revive the flailing economy. With the growing economic crisis and terrorism resurgence making things difficult for Pakistan by the day, it would be wise to take steps to normalize trade. Naysayers can look towards the longtime friend China, which has raised its living standards while doing business with foes and without compromising on its territorial claims.

Growing instability in Pakistan, be it of the economic or security kind, neither suits India nor its friends in the West. But it takes two to tango – can India reciprocate a meaningful peace gesture? As India goes for parliamentary elections in a year’s time, the belligerence under the Modi government is expected to grow, not dial down, over the coming months. Besides, with Pakistan’s own electoral transition mired in great uncertainty, any fresh peace process is vulnerable to opportunistic attacks. Let’s wait and see if any major internal or external developments are able to soften the currently-frozen diplomatic ties during 2023.

March 1,2023

Source: Business Recorder

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