Pakistan has reached a major milestone in its history, having successfully held elections after a democratically elected government completed a full term. Nawaz Sharif stormed ahead of the other parties in the polls gathering over 100 seats at the very onset of the elections. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) faced the brunt of crippling anti-incumbency while their leaders didn’t even put up a fight during the polls. Democracy in Pakistan has been regularly thwarted by military generals on the pretext of protecting national interests by removing ‘corrupt’ politicians. Yet, unlike the Turkish military, Pakistan’s military has never had a democratic outlook in its relationship to the civilian leadership. It has always sought to provide military statesman, and never nurtured democratic institutions or allowed smooth transitions. It is therefore hard to predict the way Pakistan’s civil-military relationship will go. In the current political climate it is imperative for Sharif to swiftly act on his election promises to keep any anti-government sentiment at bay, which the military may capitalise on. As the nation suffers from a massive deficit, crumbling infrastructure, and an internal security crisis, it’s a mammoth task for the new Prime Minister.
A major key to improving Pakistan’s economy is better relations with India, which would also open more financial avenues for Indian companies. Most importantly, strong economic relations will help reduce the decades-long security tensions between the two countries and fulfil a destiny of strong regional partnership. The previous government of Pakistan and the Indian government pushed a lot of measures to boost economic relations, as both agreed to establish a relationship similar to Sino-Indian diplomacy, making border disputes second priority to the economic advantages of bilateral trade.
According to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), India-Pakistan trade stood at $3 billion in 2012, but has the potential to rise up to $10 billion in the next four years. Trade currently involves a trickle of trucks carrying perishable goods, sports goods, processed food products, machinery and staple cotton amongst others across the Line of Control. It also includes expensive and time consuming transit trade via Middle Eastern capitals like Dubai and Tehran.
In September 2011, Pakistan’s Commerce Minister, Makhdoom Amin Fahim met his Indian counterpart, Anand Sharma to kick start talks to normalize trade. Fahim became Pakistan’s first Commerce Minister to visit India in 35 years and the Trade ministries of both nations made a joint statement to lay out a timeline for removing all non-tariff barriers. Pakistan took a historic step granting ‘Most Favoured Nation’ (MFN) status to India in 2011 and announced its plans to cut its Negative Goods trade list to open up its domestic markets to Indian businesses. In December 2011, India and Pakistan’s Trade ministries ended 6 rounds of talks, charting a plan to implement the Preferential Trading Agreement. The talks included negotiations to open trading points along the Indo-Pak border, easing Foreign Direct investment rules, allowing cross-border banking services, and implementing a liberal visa regime. However, in February 2012 the Pakistani government deferred its decision to prune its Negative List after prominent politicians raised concerns of Indian goods flooding Pakistan’s markets and hampering its domestic industries. Nonetheless, both governments stayed the course. The same month, Anand Sharma became India’s first Commerce Minister to visit Pakistan in 64 years and achieved a commitment from Pakistan’s Trade Ministry to boost trade to $6 billion in the next three years, and started talks on opening border trading points at the Attari-Wagah border and Mona Bao in Rajasthan. Last year, an Integrated Check Post was inaugurated at the Attari-Wagah border to boost the volume of cross-border trade. The ICP allows 10 times the current 200 trucks which cross the border checkpoint daily. In March 2012, Pakistan’s Petroleum and Natural Resources Secretary, Muhammad Ejaz Chaudhry held talks with his Indian counterpart, G.C Chaturvedi during the 7th Asian Gas Partnership Summit in New Delhi. Both agreed to speed up the completion of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project and facilitate a quid pro quo trade of Indian oil and Pakistani cement and chemicals. Even post the Pakistan polls; Sharif communicated his commitment to stronger ties with India, while Arvind Mehta, the joint secretary in the Commerce Ministry told the Economic Times on Wednesday that the Indian government had already communicated to the incoming regime to take the Indo-Pak free trade agreement forward.
From negotiations, informal meets, photo-ops and trade fairs, last year has been full of good signs for Indo-Pak trade relations. Nawaz Sharif will do a great service to Pakistan and India if he continues to strengthen bilateral ties with a sustained will and vision of nurturing a strong and historic partnership. Economic cooperation can set the foundation for the active cross-border movement of intangible industries like education, theater, music, film and art. Imagine Pakistani movies airing in our multiplexes and Pakistani fashion brands becoming the toast of fashion events across the country. Imagine Pakistani and Indian teachers actively crossing the border to teach in schools, universities and aid in the fight against illiteracy. In western universities, Indian and Pakistani students actively mingle with each other as they share a common language, popular culture, political frustrations, and gain a rare insight into a ‘foreign’ culture just across the border. Why should such solidarity only be enjoyed thousands of miles away? Imagine Indian and Pakistani students actively crossing the border to study in universities and other institutions for cultural exposure and bonding opportunities, denied and untapped for so many decades. The strengthening of such cooperation can bring two extremely similar yet estranged societies closer together for the prosperity and welfare of future generations. This is the destiny of both nations and I hope both governments will be fortunate enough to have such a vision.