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Pakistan: the change within

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may say – and un-say – that Kashmir is a flashpoint that can trigger a fourth war with India. His countrymen, however, are thinking differently. At a South Asia conference in Lahore on November 28, the theme was regional collaboration – particularly between India and Pakistan. Over nearly three days, neither the speakers nor the audience mentioned Kashmir, the army – despite the changeover of army chief of staff on November 29 – or jihad. Instead, the consensus voted for an India-China type relationship: acrimony yes, but trade dominates.

It is a view that resonates from within Pakistan. Ten years of terrorism and two decades of declining human indices have resulted in much introspection; people now understand their predicament – and are desperate to change it. Pakistan has put itself out of the geopolitical mainstream, and the sweeping changes across Asia are beyond its grasp. It is respected by none of its sponsors – not Saudi Arabia, not the United States, not China. Nor do those nations appreciate the civilisational space that Pakistan occupies – home to Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, and the Indus Valley culture. The transit routes in Pakistan are viewed only through the lens of NATO supplies to Afghanistan, and terrorists to other parts of Asia.

The region that best understands Pakistan is its South Asia neighbourhood – India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal. It is South Asia that will recognise and welcome, early on, the changing narrative of Pakistan. Pakistanis realise this, and know they must find a way to reconcile with, and engage positively with, their bigger neighbour India. They dream of a South Asian Century of which they are a part, a European Union-type of regionalism which “moves beyond jingoistic nationalism to regionalism and from thence, to globalism,” said Amin Hashwani, president of the Pakistan-India CEO Forum.

Considering that Indians have stopped envisioning a South Asian Century and subjected themselves to the tyrannical and restricted visa regimes of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the conversation in Lahore was bold – and pragmatic. Pakistanis displayed little interest in the Congress party or the Gandhi dynasty. Instead, they see Narendra Modi coming to power in New Delhi, and want to know how what it means for them and for the bilateral. With fondness, they remember former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and wonder if current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have a similar confidence and courage with their country.

Trade and investment is top-most on the agenda for an improved bilateral. For now, Pakistan’s official exports to India comprise just 1.34% of its total basket, about the same as Sri Lanka and way below the 10% it exports to China. Annual imports at 4.4% are more than the U.S., but again far off the 14% imports from China. The scope is tremendous.

Suggestions for investment from India, from the most powerful officials in Islamabad, are flowing fast and furiously. Shaukat Tarin, former minister for finance and economic affairs in Islamabad, and now advisor to the chairman of Silk Bank, is focused on India’s technical expertise and cooperation in exploring the lignite deposits of Sindh, power transmission business from Tata Power and BHEL, exporting coal to Rajasthan, and educational alliances of the kind signed by the Indian Business Association in Karachi and the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.

Trade corridors, transport, and an integrated energy policy including the development of oil pipelines like the Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India and the Iran Pakistan India are key to regional growth, Tarin says. The healthcare industries in both nations are also ripe for collaboration and cooperation, says Sudarshan Jain, the head of Abbot Healthcare in India.

It won’t be easy, but a calibrated economic cooperation will work well, according to Mohammad Zubair, chairman of Pakistan’s central Board of Investment.

These are certainly ideas much to be desired, and Pakistani business will start to push for them. But for Pakistan to truly prosper will require an organically-grown, winning global enterprise that will be the spring board to self-confidence and success – much the same that India did with its information technology and outsourcing boom that started in 2000, making it globally competitive and successful. It transformed India’s self-image as a nation of poor masses to a country with a mass of brain power.

It will not be easy for Pakistan to manage such a transformation. Locals say the national psyche has become so depressed from the adversities of the last two decades that Pakistanis have stopped thinking like winners.

But it is also not impossible for Pakistan to revive its self-confidence. For the country has three powerful, natural talents which, if harnessed with skill, can catapult it into an authentic global success:

  1. Hospitality or mehmaan nawazi: this is in the Pakistani DNA, an innate talent combined with generosity and a love of living well that can build a profitable hospitality sector.
  2. Artistic creativity: in music, dance, singing, art, architecture, cuisine, carving, embroidery, and tailoring – Pakistanis excel in these fields, which are at the nation’s cultural base.
  3. A competitive, export-based textile industry that can become world-class – and seed a South Asian Textile Integration, linking with the textile sectors of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

India can lend a hand by helping to build the institutions that support these efforts. For instance, textile and fashion institutes can be established with Indian linkages; technology can be used to help increase literacy and skills-building in these sectors.

These will be well-received across the border. The peaceful transition of political power this year has given Pakistan some legitimacy. Zubair, of Pakistan’s central Board of Investment, asks that his country be viewed as a new-born, created just five years ago as a real democracy, recognised as such through the uneventful change of government. “We are emerging, coming of age” only now, he says.

And they ask for patience: “We have to learn to persevere, to display patience with each others’ follies,” says Hina Rabbani Khar, the former foreign minister of Pakistan. “We must be ready for disappointment, for it to all fall down – political expediency at the cost of national interest – but it doesn’t matter, we must persevere nevertheless.”

Of course there are issues – and most of them lie with the military. Pakistan’s military receives  aid every year ranging from $500 million to $1.5 billion from Washington with very few conditionalities. An end to militancy will mean an end to this large infusion for the military-jihadi complex. Rawalpindi will not relinquish its hold over the country easily.

A confrontation between Pakistan’s army, political class, and public is on the cards. Two reasons: one, the spectacular win by the Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi elections this week will not be lost on Pakistanis looking to normalise their nation. Two, the global derision which Pakistan has lived with over the past decade, has forced the country to review its identity. That, as a new generation of Pakistanis are discovering, is not an “anti-India” identity. It is one of an independent nation in the South Asian region with which it shares a history, but within which it has unique skills and abilities.

India must watch from the sidelines, and no matter what the provocation, refuse to be drawn into that confrontation – as we have so far. Meanwhile, we can take some immediate steps to show our sincerity. First, Lahore is desperately short of milk; what there is, is used up by multinationals like Nestle for their products. The Amul cooperative is just across the border in Narendra Modi’s state – and can be a quick success story to replicate. Second, Prime Minister Singh can conduct Ajmer-style shrine-diplomacy and fulfil his long-cherished dream of visiting his hometown in Punjab and the Nankana Sahib and Dera Sahib temples. It will be his last chance to leave a legacy to remember.

Manjeet Kripalani is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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