The end of the year has brought in a slight ray of hope for the troubled India-Pakistan relations, with the two South Asian countries renewing their resolve to maintain peace at the Line of Control, the de facto border, and Islamabad signalling its intent to improve trade relations with New Delhi.
More than ten weeks after the prime ministers of India and Pakistan held talks in New York, the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMOs) of the two countries finally met on the Pakistani side of the Wagah border December 24. They discussed a slew of steps to maintain peace along the LoC that has been sorely tested by an unprecedented number of cross-border violations since the two sides sealed a ceasefire agreement a decade ago.
A joint statement at the end of the meeting reflected the two countries’ “commitment to maintain the sanctity and ceasefire on the Line of Control” and a desire to “re-energise existing mechanisms.” The two sides agreed to make hotline Contact between the two DGMOs “more effective and result-oriented.” They also decided to inform each other if any innocent civilian inadvertently crosses Line LoC to ensure his or her early return. “Both sides reiterated resolve and commitment to continue efforts for ensuring ceasefire, peace and tranquility on the Line of Control.”
The change of guard in Islamabad in May 2013, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the helm, had rekindled hopes for a new phase in the accident-prone relations between India and Pakistan, but those expectations were quickly dashed after the brutal killing of five Indian soldiers at the LoC and subsequent ceasefire violations. A meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif in September on the sidelines of the UNGA is New York proved to just a feel-good exercise, sans any bold moves or initiatives for reinvigorate the critical relationship, which appeared to be recovering after prolonged bitterness and distrust following the 26/11 Mumbai mayhem.
Against this bleak backdrop, the meeting between the DGMOs on the Christmas eve should be welcomed, but the success of the initiative will be judged by a tangible reduction in tensions on the border.
The efforts to sustain peace on the border must be backed by a more focused and result-oriented trade diplomacy. Pakistan must stop dragging its feet on granting the long-delayed MFN status to India, a promise that has been repeatedly made and deferred in the last few months. In this context, a likely visit by Pakistan’s State Minister for Commerce and Textile Khurram Dastagir Khan to New Delhi for the Jan 15-17 SAARC business leaders’ conclave could help bring the much-needed clarity on the trajectory of trade relations between the two countries. The Nation, a Pakistani daily, has struck an optimistic note, saying Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may unveil some new steps to scale up trade and economic relations between the two countries. The daily reported that the Pakistani government might give an assurance to the Indian government to reduce the items on the negative list from exiting 1,209 items from next year 2014. This proposed assurance seems to be at variance with the current play of debate in Pakistan, with Pakistan’s Finance Minister Ishaq Dar making it clear that there was no immediate plan to give the MFN status to India.
The MFN decision should not, however, hold up initiatives in other areas like energy cooperation, which was brought into focus during Pakistan Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s recent visit to India. Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of the Pakistan prime minister, is determined to walk the talk. Speaking to a delegation of Indian energy experts in Lahore Dec. 25, Mr Sharif underlined that his government will seek cooperation from the Punjab government in India for installing bio-mass power generation plants and other alternative resources. Forging people-centric initiatives like these could go a long way in energising India-Pakistan ties, which is prone to spells of volatility and inertia.
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