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India-Pakistan relations are like the weathercock. General Mitchener, in Bernard Shaw’s play Press Cuttings, mocks Lady Corinthia, ‘Will you …. blow my brain out, I should prefer it to any further effort to follow the gyrations of the weathercock you no doubt call your mind. To get one’s head around India-Pakistan relations and in specific the recent happenings, is as challenging, as reading Lady Corinthia’s mind.

Recently India agreed to talk to Pakistan on the sidelines of the ongoing session at the UN, only to call it off, almost immediately. Why?

India’s reasons, though many, are unconvincing. The Burhan Wani stamp release precedes the agreement to talk. The brutal killing of a BSF soldier came two days before this announcement. The killing of three special police officers at Shopian was horrendous but 37 more Kashmiri policemen and 13 BSF soldiers also died this year and if the earlier deaths did not stop a meeting, why should three more scuttle the talks?

India said this was going to be just a meeting rather than an extended dialogue. But if matters like access to the Kartarpur Gurudwara — a very important shrine for Sikhs situated in Pakistan and close to the border — were on the agenda, then this was more than a talk on talks. The politics of hug diplomacy, Pakistan softening its stand on access to the shrine, the harsh words used to scamper the talks and in particular the unduly personalised comments to denigrate Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan are some of the other dimensions worthy of scrutiny. But the central focus of this piece is to discuss the strategic implications of trade in the context of adversarial relations between two neighbouring states and less on the complicated history of India-Pakistan relations.

‘India’s heft depends on relations with neighbours’ appeared in the Mint and it distils the hard-earned wisdom of ex-foreign secretary Shyam Saran on a matter that receives far less attention than surgical strikes and gung-ho military adventurism. The relations between the two successor states created after the great Partition of 1947 have been bedevilled ever since the two came into being and the accession of the princely state of the Kashmir is at the very heart of this toxic relationship.

Ever since, this dispute has been a zero-sum game with neither side willing to compromise despite many creative and imaginative tracks to craft a solution: Some of these creative options like soft borders with territorial sovereignty intact could well have been baulked at by both sides yet they would have led to reduced killings.

The much touted surgical strike of 2016 was a different approach but on its second anniversary, Ajai Shukla writing in the South China Post says “there is little evidence that …. the surgical strikes of 2016 have achieved the objective of “teaching Pakistan a lesson … from fewer than 200 ceasefire violations in 2013 …. up to a 1,000 so far”. He has also says ‘India lacks the intelligence and capabilities needed to execute targeted strikes or wage a limited war in Pakistani territory’. So then if India is unable to impose a unilateral solution on Pakistan, then we need to read Saran’s seminal essays. We also need to pay heed to Valentino Piana, Director of the Economics Web Institute, on his Trade with thy neighbour, an exhaustive empirical study on how cross-border trade can be game changers in relations between hostile neighbours.

Mohammad Ashraf in The Express Tribune of Pakistan, says trading with neighbours offers multiple advantages. He discusses the gravity model of international trade between two countries as well as the cultural overlap and consequent similarity of consumption and other factors making the neighbouring markets a natural extension of domestic market.

Inbred hostility

In reality, Pakistan manages a mere 0.08 per cent share in India’s imports and India a measly 4 per cent of Pakistan’s imports The Irish Republic’s trade with the UK is worth €65 billion (Dh275 billion) a year and sustains over 400,000 jobs on both islands. Irish farmers sell 100,000 tonnes of cheese to the UK every year while more than half of the Republic’s €2.5 billion beef exports go to the UK. Many are likely to say this comparison — UK and Ireland — is absurd given the inbred hostility between India and Pakistan.

For Rushdie’s Midnight Children, Kashmir’s troubled history is something they have grown to live with, a barnacle attached permanently to their substrata. It is complicated and needs enormous wisdom to manage one the world’s oldest wrangles. Saran’s How India sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century is a hard- nosed look at India-Pakistan relations. He is no peacenik for he says India’s options have to be combined with a liberal policy for trade, economic and cultural exchanges and needs ‘a toolkit of options, short of war, that can inflict costs and damages on Pakistan.’

India’s Pakistan policy must be based on the recognition that India-Pakistan relations are deeply adversarial and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. The policy objective should be the management of this adversarial relationship rather than any quest for a grand reconciliation’.

Surgical strikes without a well thought out plan and a Lady Corinthia mindset can be disastrous.

Ravi Menon is a Dubai-based writer, working on a series of essays on India and on a public service initiative called India Talks.