Darkness beset Delhi last week as India witnessed the largest blackout in world history. On two consecutive days, seven hundred million people simultaneously were without power for hours—an ignominious feat for an aspiring superpower. Today, India’s rise looks more ambiguous than it was at the height of the current global economic crisis. Declarations of India’s arrival have proven to be premature. But amid the gloom, light shines from its western border as the doors of trade with longtime rival Pakistan slowly open.
The 1947 partition of British India and three subsequent wars progressively reduced the flow of people and goods across the Pakistan-India border. Over time, historic trade routes and many border crossings were closed. Despite a host of trade barriers, bilateral commerce has continued by way of the black market and indirect routes like Dubai, adding to the costs of both consumers and manufacturers and denying Islamabad and New Delhi much-needed tax revenue.
But economic pragmatism is making its way into South Asia. In late July, India announced that it would permit foreign direct investment from Pakistan, except in sensitive industries that deal with national security. The move comes nearly a year after Pakistan granted India most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status. Bilateral trade liberalization is part of a larger normalization process that in the past thirteen years has seen its ups and downs, with alternating fits of bonhomie and scorn. A comprehensive Pakistan-India peace has been elusive, but what is clear is that the two countries are proficient in the language not only of war but also of peace. The challenge has been to enact the script of peace.
The subcontinent has seen three major attempts at Pakistan-India rapprochement since the late 1990s. In 1999, less than a year after conducting nuclear tests that shocked the world, Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Atal Bihari Vajpayee—a leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharata Janata Party—held historic talks in Pakistan. But months after the summit, Pakistan’s army chief General Pervez Musharraf launched a daring, tactically brilliant but strategically unsound operation to seize the Kargil region of Indian-controlled Kashmir, nearly precipitating a full-scale war. Musharraf’s goal was to internationalize the Kashmir conflict, to compel foreign actors to see it as in the world’s interest to bring India to the bargaining table with Pakistan.
Musharraf did this without the consent of Sharif, whom he would overthrow by the fall of that year. But in 2002, Musharraf too began a determined effort for peace in South Asia, effectively continuing the process Sharif initiated. Courageously, he rolled back support for Kashmiri jihadis, which spurred multiple assassination attempts on him and brought about a war between the Pakistani state and its former jihadi assets that continues today. The Musharraf-led peace venture met its end as Musharraf’s political troubles grew in 2007, culminating with his resignation from the presidency the next year. But the two sides were closer to a deal than ever before. In clandestine talks, Pakistani and Indian officials drafted a “nonpaper” that articulated the broad outlines of a comprehensive peace deal, according to a report by journalist Steve Coll. As bilateral dialogue came to a halt, the 2009 terrorist attacks on Mumbai perpetrated by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) brought the two countries to the brink of war once again.
Beginning last year, the pendulum has swung once again toward normalization. Pakistan has given India MFN status and allowed for the transit of Afghan-Indian trade through its territory. The Pakistani and Indian prime ministers have conversed briefly on the sidelines of global summits. Formal bilateral meetings have risen to the ministerial level. Pakistan and India have held two rounds of talks on eight issues, including on Kashmir and more resolvable disputes over the Sir Creek waterway and Siachen Glacier. In September, India’s top diplomat will head to Islamabad. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could follow him later in November. Retired Pakistani diplomat Najmuddin Sheikh has speculated that Singh and his Pakistani counterpart could conclude agreements on Siachen and Sir Creek—gateway issues to a final resolution of Kashmir.
Sheikh’s forecast is perhaps a bit too sunny. Pakistan-India talks are moving at a glacial pace. Each side is hindered by sclerotic bureaucracies. Meanwhile, the future of the government is uncertain. An activist supreme court might disqualify a second prime minister this year. Coalition allies could abandon their leader, the Pakistan People’s Party, and compel it to call early elections in the winter. A caretaker government in the lead-up to the polls would not be able to conclude agreements with New Delhi. The process would have to be put on hold temporarily.