Will they grasp the moment?

Will they grasp the moment?

By Amir Zia

They love to disagree and fight on anything and everything under the sun; but when it comes to India, even bitter political rivals in Pakistan now manage to find a common ground – for peace. Yes! The country’s key mainstream political parties – the ruling and the opposition – want an end to hostilities with India. They desire peace, friendship and close economic and trade ties with our neighbour to the East that not too long ago was officially considered the enemy number one and the biggest threat to Pakistan’s security.

This rare consensus on a complex and, to an extent, emotional issue for many Pakistanis has again been manifested in a compelling manner during the 2nd Pakistan-India Economic Conference held in Lahore on May 7-8. The conference, organised under the banner of Aman ki Asha – a media-led peace initiative of the Jang Group and The Times of India – attracted not just the frontline businesspersons and corporate leaders from both sides of the border, but also some frontline political leaders and government officials. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, whose Pakistan Peoples’ Party-led government has made some big strides in easing trade relations between the two countries over the last one year, set the ball rolling at the inaugural session of the conference, saying that improvement in ties with India remained a cherished goal of his government.

The sentiment was echoed by Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan, who is trying to position his party as the third force in the murky waters of Pakistani politics. The crux of Khan’s message was that the new generation wants a new Pak-India relationship based on mutual trust. Chief Minister Punjab Mian Shahbaz Sharif, a businessman-turned-politician, perhaps articulated what the business communities of both Pakistani and Indian Punjab desire the most – to trade directly among themselves rather than through the far-flung Karachi and Mumbai ports, to reduce freight cost and save time.

The three mainstream parties reflected the sentiment of other important political players including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the Awami National Party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and the Baloch nationalists, who all want a paradigm shift in Islamabad-New Delhi relations by breaking away from the bitterness of the past.

In a highly polarised and ideologically divided country, this consensus among rivals on a major foreign policy issue bodes well for internal politics as well as regional peace, given the fact that not long ago this kind of warmth and unequivocal support for friendly relations appeared impossible.

The newfound impetus in the peace process also draws strength from the business community, industrialists, corporate giants and traders, who see vast opportunities for growth and wealth if the two countries fully open their borders for trade and allow economic collaboration. In fact, much before the politicians came out openly in support of this process, it was these interest groups that lobbied and raised their voice for the normalisation of Pakistan-India relations.

But the credit for staying ahead of the curve that leads towards the normalisation of Pakistan-India relations goes to the Jang Group and The Times of India, which launched the Aman ki Asha initiative in January 2010. Initially, the effort was seen with scepticism, even hostility, by forces caught up in hidebound and warlike state narratives ever since Partition. The concept of peace and friendly relations between Pakistan-India was not in vogue at that time, but the Aman ki Asha managed to create waves and served as a catalyst for improvement of ties between the two countries, by providing an organised and neutral platform.

While there is much to celebrate on the recent gains made at the official level for enhancing trade ties, the peace process between the two countries still remains fragile and vulnerable to the knotty historical disputes and unforeseen incidents of terrorism. Islamabad and New Delhi require vision and strong political will to keep the peace process on course in the minefield of historical disputes that include the unresolved Kashmir issue which bedevils relations between them. The two governments must take advantage of the newfound warmth and goodwill at the people-to-people level to tackle fundamental issues, ensuring durable and sustainable peace in South Asia. The sense of current euphoria and optimism may prove short-lived if the governments fail to capitalise on this and continue to drag their feet on big decisions.

From Pakistan’s point-of-view, the Kashmir issue cannot be left on the backburner. A just solution of this protracted dispute over the divided Himalayan region according to the aspirations of the Kashmiri people remains the basic prerequisite for sustainable friendly relations and any meaningful economic collaboration. Governments come and go and people can make or lose money in trade, but state interests remain permanent, which cannot be abandoned for short-term gains.

While it is encouraging that Islamabad and New Delhi have made meaningful decisions to boost trade ties during the last few months, they have made little headway on the political front, even on issues whose resolution would be as difficult as plucking low-hanging fruit – such as the disputes over Sir Creek, Siachen Glacier, and the distribution of water resources.

At the same time, Pakistan needs to address the international concerns regarding terrorism and ensure that its territory is not used by militant non-state actors to hatch terror plots against any other country. This is easier said than done, given the porous border with Afghanistan, the weakened writ of the state in many parts of the country and the presence of a strong terror network which continues to target and kill innocent people; but Islamabad must move to fight the menace and must be seen to be moving to do so.

The people-to-people contacts, the enthusiasm of interest groups for boosting economic relations, media-led peace movements, all play an important role in setting the stage, but in the end it will be for the governments to take bold and meaningful decisions to lock the gains and ensure peace in South Asia where the armies of two nuclear powers stand eyeball to eyeball.

The leadership on both sides has an opportunity to make history anew by giving their relations a determined direction towards peace, progress and prosperity in South Asia. The question is: Will they grasp the moment?

The writer is editor The News, Karachi. Email: [email protected]

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