One Step at a Time

It was the summer of 1991. Narasimha Rao had just become India's prime minister. He inherited not just a bankrupt economy, but also a country without friends. Rao put his energies into reviving the country's economy. He established diplomatic relations with Israel, and mended fences with the US. In five years, India had turned around.

Pakistan finds itself isolated today. Geopolitics now is so dynamic that no one is anyone's permanent friend or foe. The US and China are touted as competitors but they are also big trading partners. Pakistan swears undying allegiance to China, but China has established strong economic relations with India. India romances the US, but buys most of its arms from Russia.

Pakistan's obsession with Kashmir locked it into an arms race with India. To reach parity, it reached out, first to the West, then to China, not fathoming that as the junior partner, it would constantly be playing to someone else's tune. If, instead, Pakistan had focused on developing itself, and risen above provocations from India, it would be thriving today. Its word would have counted in global forums. Kashmir would have been naturally drawn to it.

All is not lost however. Rulers in Pakistan continually promise making the country another Turkey or Malaysia, ever invoking the common thread of religion. But Pakistan should aspire to be benchmarked against other countries as well, notably Brazil and South Africa. Each has a per capita GDP more than three times Pakistan's on a purchasing power parity basis. Both are already members of BRICS. Why can't Pakistan hope to make the group within a decade?

The world is not out to get Pakistan, not even India. Successive Indian prime ministers have amply demonstrated their keenness to resolve Kashmir. Vajpayee made strong headway with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. Sharif's successor, Musharraf, scuttled it. Vajpayee then romanced Musharraf, but lost power. Manmohan Singh almost reached an accord with Musharraf, until the latter lost control. So to assert that India has continually shied away from resolving Kashmir is simply unfair.

India, no matter any rhetoric to the contrary, does not want to break up Pakistan. It already struggles to take care of its burgeoning Muslim population. Its biggest nightmare is loose Islamic nukes, which of course could become real if Pakistan's center does not hold.

But some in Pakistan are convinced that India wants to balkanize it. So they look to control Afghanistan. That is when India gets its own bout of paranoia. If Pakistan and India agree to leave Afghanistan be, then they themselves will be able to live in peace. Pakistan has the upper hand in Afghanistan today. With great power comes great responsibility. If Pakistan behaves responsibly in Afghanistan, it will be surprised by the plaudits that come its way.

Pakistan is understandably worried about being swamped by India if MFN comes into effect. But India can suo motu propose a couple of friendly measures. Its engineering, management, and medical universities are world-renowned. Can India not help Pakistan set up a few such institutes? Others had aided India in its time of need, surely it can spread the goodwill around now.

India's IT majors constantly look for lower cost countries to outsource to since salaries in India have ballooned. Can they not be persuaded to set up software and call centers in Pakistan? In both these initiatives, technologies like video conferencing and Internet streaming can minimize any perceived security risks to Indian personnel serving in Pakistan. In any case, not many Indians will have to relocate to Pakistan.

Another area where the two countries can collaborate quickly is in exploiting the Thar desert's rich coal deposits to generate power.

Manmohan Singh is greatly weakened today, and with elections approaching, he is unlikely to promote any proposals where he can be accused of pandering to Pakistan. Perhaps then the educational institute and IT initiatives will have to wait. But the Thar coal fields are another matter. The need for energy on both sides is so compelling that exploration can be expected to override any ill will.

The specter of a hardline government emerging in India grows by the day. Singh still has a year left in office. He and the just-reelected Pakistani premier, Nawaz Sharif, have the same mother tongue, Punjabi. They better get rolling.