It takes two to tango. Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s foreign minister, may have been more practical than prescient while making this observation at the recent foreign ministerial level talks between India and Pakistan in Islamabad. The talks led to India and Pakistan living up to their promise of liberalizing the visa regime, a small but critical part of the dialogue process. In July 2010, at a similar meeting between foreign ministers in Pakistan, the participants had failed to match their steps and visions. The meeting had ended in rancour, with Pakistan accusing India of refusing to talk Kashmir and India accusing Pakistan’s State agencies of being directly linked with a terror attack. The reason why the 2012 meet has produced a tangible gain is because both the countries have decided to take a step back and concentrate on what can be achieved within the matrix of a complex relationship. In deciding to work on the “convergences” rather than the divergences between the two countries, Pakistan has let go, even if it is for the moment, of its dogged zeal to rev up nothing short of the earlier composite dialogue. And by deciding to back Pakistan’s efforts without hyping up its quest for justice for the 26/11 victims, India has synchronized its moves with an initiative that has the potential to change the dynamics of the bilateral ties.
Trade is being looked upon by both India and Pakistan as this crucial element of change that will help security by promoting common interests. Ever since Pakistan declared its intention to grant the most-favoured nation status to India in 2011, both countries have tried to remove the hurdles on the path of free and open trade that is estimated to reach a high of $6 billion by 2014. A liberalized visa regime — that now gives businessmen access to as many as five cities for a year and exempts them from reporting to the police, for the first time grants permission of visit to tourist groups and visas on arrival to children and the aged besides freeing the line of control to travel — is a crucial part of this engagement. That this economic tie and the resultant prosperity are being regarded as Pakistan’s safest bet against rising fundamentalism, violence and bankruptcy is evident from the way the Pakistan People’s Party government has pushed the matter with India, often through informal visits of its dignitaries to India.
Unfortunately, this crucial issue has sometimes fallen victim to domestic compulsions. If the civilian government’s equation with the military has held up matters in Pakistan, in India, it has been the political weakness of the prime minister that has compromised his foreign policy. Yet, for trade to promote interdependence and conviviality, it is important that economics is never again sacrificed at the altar of politics.