In India-Pakistan ties it is tough to make predictions. Indian Prime Minister Modi’s style of informal and personalized diplomacy is likely to make it tougher for the plethora of Indo-Pak pundits. Nobody could have anticipated the impromptu visit to Lahore on December 25 – especially after the tensions of the past year and a half; dialogue has been suspended on more than one occasion during this period.
Modi stopped over on Nawaz Sharif’s 66th birthday. He had called to offer birthday wishes to the Pakistani Premier, and asked if on his return home he could make a brief stop. Sharif, who has interacted with every Indian Prime Minister since 1990 (Chandrashekhar onwards), lapped up the idea.
Few would have predicted that the meeting between Modi and Sharif on the sidelines of the Paris Climate Summit would lead to so many important developments. The meeting between the two was first followed up by a meeting between the National Security Advisors (NSAs) of both countries and then a successful visit by the Indian Foreign Minister to Islamabad for the Heart of Asia Conference (December 7-8), where she also met the Pakistani PM.
Therefore, anyone who is willing to predict the outcome of ties for 2016 does so at their own peril. The years 2014 and 2015 provide strong reiterations of this point. 2015 rekindled hopes for the resumption of engagement – in February 2015, PM Modi called his Pakistani counterpart on the eve of the Cricket World Cup and also informed him that Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar would be visiting Pakistan. Between February and there was not much progress and rash statements on both sides as well as violations across the LOC did not really help matters.
Ultimately it is the governments that will decide the future of the relationship, but there are other players who influence the relationship too. While journalists and strategic analysts have a role, it is actually the business community which deserves immense credit for ensuring that this channel remains open. A prominent Indian businessman, Sajjan Jindal, who shares close relations with Nawaz Sharif and whom the Pakistani PM met for tea when he visited Delhi in connection with Mr. Modi’s swearing in May 2014, has reportedly facilitated back channel negotiations. In fact, on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit in 2014, he had arranged a meeting between the two PMs away from the media glare. Some opposition parties have objected to the role of big business in India-Pakistan ties, but globally, they play an important role in complex bilateral relationships, and have done so even in the context of India’s ties with other countries.
If one looks beyond back channel negotiations, it would also be important to credit chambers of commerce. Regional chambers of commerce from the two Punjabs deserve special mention in this context, ties between the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and PHD (Punjab Haryana Delhi) Chamber of Commerce are just one example. For over a decade, the PHD Chamber in conjunction with the Punjab Government has been organizing the PITEX (Punjab International Trade Expo) with a large number of attendees from Pakistan. Recently, the PITEX was held in the first Week of December; a number of Pakistani businessmen attended and Pakistani exhibits (handicrafts, cotton and foodstuffs) were amongst the most popular.
The significance of links between such chambers of commerce is that they have kept the pressure on both their governments to ease visa regimes and address impediments to business even during times of tension. They have also helped in cementing close ties between businessmen from both the Punjabs; in certain cases developing strong relationships.
What are the likely takeaways from 2015? And the forecast for 2016?
While recent meetings between PMs Modi and Sharif are a welcome step and both leaders have exhibited flexibility and are pro-business, they are likely to be tested. In this context, there are some takeaways.
First, the safest track is trade and commerce between both sides. Apart from big business houses, exchanges between chambers of commerce on both sides need to be encouraged, even during times of tension. The governments of both the Punjabs, which have played a positive role in reducing tensions between both countries, should be encouraged to play an important role not just in business ties, but also encouraging greater people to people ties and encouraging religious tourism.
Second, the meetings between the Prime Ministers on the sidelines of multi-lateral summits are a must, since they are away from media glare. Though one lesson is that preparation is imperative if a joint statement needs to be made, and neither side should be expected to concede too much – lest they find themselves in an embarrassing position. This is clearly evident from the Ufa Summit in June.
In conclusion, sane individuals on both sides would hope that the leadership on both sides molds public opinion, and does not buckle under pressure from jingoistic forces on both sides.
Image: The India Today Group, Getty