Another op-ed for Express-Tribune today

Today the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India will meet. This major development should be welcomed. Sceptical noises of distrust in both countries have been heard and the Kashmiri leaders have issued rejectionist statements.

Subcontinental leaderships have time and again floundered peace. Sometimes it is the recklessness on the Pakistani side and at other times the Indian officialdom chants the trust-deficit mantra. But this must end. Media wisdom about the BJP and the Pakistan military making a durable peace deal has not withstood the test of history. Democracy and peace are interlinked despite the compulsions of playing to the jingoists for electoral gains. In Pakistan, martial rule is over and a BJP government is unlikely in the medium term.

It is time for the two governments to take stock of their fast changing societies and economies. Unlike the mediatised versions, Pakistan is a transformational society. The old governance structures are decaying and power is now distributed among multiple centres, not unlike India. This is why the foreign ministers should negotiate the lifting of media restrictions and let the two countries and their people understand each other.

The next 12 months are critical: an Afghanistan settlement has to take place, the water issue needs to be explored and Kashmir back channel negotiations have to be fast tracked. In spite of the hostilities, Pakistan-India trade exceeded $2 billion recently and the unofficial figure is even greater. There is a clear path ahead: keep talking and doing business for mutual gains.

The Pakistani state is battling against militancy on many fronts. The Indian state is dealing with the nightmare of Maoists and Naxalite insurgencies in addition to what it calls ‘cross-border terrorism’. Concurrently, the two democracies have to deliver public goods and fight poverty. They need to be resolute and develop a new framework for peace. Such a framework should involve the Pakistan Army. Our eastern borders are always a priority in our military mindset. India’s troop reduction will give confidence to the national security apparatus. The second plank of this new framework should build on the Kashmir CBMs increasing the flow of people and goods backed by [in]formal diplomatic engagement. The babus in New Delhi and Islamabad will continue to twist the files and shuffle the papers.

The third component should be exclusive focus on trade and economic cooperation. This would require exempting visas for bona fide business concerns. Across the borders, we have ready-made markets. This cannot happen in isolation unless the visa policy is creatively revised. Finally, more journalists from both sides should be allowed to break the hold of jihadis, Bollywood stereotypes and Wagah-ites from popular imagination. The information deficit is even stronger than the trust deficit. The overarching agreement should be to continue talking. This is not the time for point-scoring but redeeming our bitter histories.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2010.