In end March, the Pakistan Economic Coordination Committee headed by the Finance Minister, Hammad Azar, met and recommended reopening of Indo-Pak trade. It suggested allowing procurement of cotton and sugar from India. Prime Minister Imran Khan, as the in-charge of the Textile and Commerce ministry, had approved the procurement.[i] The same was then placed before the Pakistani cabinet, within 24 hours. The cabinet, under Prime Minister Imran Khan, discussed the procurement. The cabinet decision announcement was released in a video statement by their foreign minister, SM Qureshi. The statement read, ‘We had a discussion on this, and the unanimous view of the Cabinet was that until the unilateral decisions taken by India on August 5, 2019 are not reconsidered, it would be impossible to normalise relations with India.’[ii]
Reports indicate that Qureshi, along with Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid and Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari, were most vocal in their opposition to re-opening trade with India.[iii] Shireen Mazari, the Pak Human Rights minister tweeted, ‘today Cabinet stated clearly NO trade with India. PM made clear there can be no normalisation of relations with India until they reverse their illegal actions viz J and K of 5 Aug 2019.’[iv] This decision of the Pak cabinet was met with anger from their textile manufacturing community. Pakistan Apparel Forum chairman Jawed Bilwani feared massive textile export decline if import of cotton yarn from India was not allowed.[v]
Even during the Heart of Asia conference, there were indicators that the two nations are nowhere close to mending fences. SM Qureshi stated Pakistan has regularly cautioned ‘against the role of spoilers both within and outside Afghanistan.’[vi] Qureshi was referring to India, whom he has always accused as being the spoiler. Jaishankar, speaking at the same conference and hinting at Pakistan stated, ‘For a durable peace in Afghanistan, what we need is a genuine double peace, that is, peace within Afghanistan and peace around Afghanistan. It requires harmonizing the interests of all, both within and around that country.’[vii]
The two foreign ministers did not meet, as was expected, with the thawing of relationships. It was evident that the trust deficit still looms large and neither country is willing to take the first step forward and then be faced with a reverse. However, the approach by both nations was in contrast to the 2019 version of the same conference, when SM Qureshi boycotted the speech of the Indian representative, General VK Singh.[viii]
While the tactical ceasefire holds and there is a reduction of rhetoric on both sides, the sudden reversal by the Pak government of recommencing trade ties, quoting repealing of abrogation of article 370, as a pre-requisite, conveys multiple messages. There is no doubt that the financial impact of non-procurement from India, which is the cheapest, would be on Pakistan, not India. If Pakistan is willing to suffer the consequences of the impact of its decision on its major industry, textiles, then it must have its reasons.
The possible reasons include, firstly, presence of hardliners in the Pak government, who believe that taking a step back, would be detrimental to their political standing and would be exploited by the opposition and religious clerics, in addition to hardliner politicians from POK. Secondly, it could possibly be a challenge to the Pak army, which first announced reproachment with India, when General Bajwa stated peace while addressing an army graduation ceremony.[ix] Prime Minister Imran Khan only followed suit. It is likely that Pak politicians were kept in the dark during the backchannel discussions between India and Pak.
Thirdly, is the possible Indian hesitation in taking the discussion forward. There could have been high expectations of Jaishankar-Qureshi meeting on the side lines of the Heart of Asia summit, within Pak, which did not happen. It could have led to the belief that India appears satisfied with the tactical action and is in no rush to move forward on strategic dialogue. With no infiltration, it is possible for India to change the strategic scenario within Kashmir to its advantage. This decision could therefore be a means of applying pressure on India to take discussion forward.
Fourthly, post the announcement of the ceasefire, Prime Minister Imran Khan received a rare call from the Saudi crown prince and an invite to visit Saudi Arabia, as a sign of accepting their message of announcing a change in their Kashmir policy, conveyed through the UAE. Relations between the two countries had soured on account of its Kashmir policy and led to the Saudi’s demanding a return of USD 3 Billion loaned to Pak.[x] By reiterating their stand of repealing the Kashmir orders, they are hoping to send this message as a redline to India, through the Gulf countries.
Fifthly, it is using the announcement of the ceasefire as a means of conveying to the US administration that it is changing its policies towards terrorism, however, in return, India must change its Kashmir policy and revert to status quo. It is hoping that the US would apply requisite pressure on India. Finally, it sends the message to India that it wishes to give priority to contentious issues, which include Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek, resolutions for which are arduous and a solution unlikely to be reached for a prolonged period, with other aspects taking a backseat.
In case India accepts Pakistan’s decision and reverts to status quo, it would be victory for Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan and defeat for the Indian government, both internally and externally. Hence, it is unlikely that India would concede. In the overall context, the announcement is possibly signalling an end to hopes of peace or possibly the commencement of multiple rounds of backchannel diplomacy to change Pak’s stand. It could also signal added gulf pressure on Pak to reverse its stand and seek talks without demanding reversion of status quo. The scenario could possibly conclude with reversion of status quo being an issue for discussion and not a pre-requisite. The answer would flow with time.