The disappointing U-turn by Pakistan on its March 31 decision to allow the import of cotton yarn and sugar over the Wagah border has brought to the fore old faultlines in its decision-making. Prime Minister Imran Khan had signed off on the trade proposal that was adopted by the Economic Coordination Committee, within days of Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s speech in Islamabad in which he spoke about trade as the way forward in South Asia. The speech — in which he frontloaded the resolution of Kashmir as key to lasting peace, but made no mention of either the UN resolutions or the August 5, 2019 changes in J&K — was the first signal that the peace at the Line of Control since a February 25 agreement to observe the ceasefire could be widened. The agreement to observe the 2003 truce strictly was itself the result of months-long back-channel negotiations. The Imran Khan government has made no secret about being on the “same page” as the army but there have been questions about how deep this went. The Kashmir hawks appear to have triggered the trade decision. But the assertion by five cabinet members that there would be no trade until a full rollback of the Kashmir changes, including restoration of J&K’s special status, is no old-style civilian government vs Pakistan Army clash. It is, more, a challenge to the Khan-Bajwa combine by more traditional sections of the security establishment over the duo’s recent positioning on normalising ties with India.
Pakistanis may be right to wonder what has changed in Kashmir that their government is now ready to resume trade ties it had snapped in August 2019. Much has changed in Pakistan, for the worse. A floundering economy is being kept afloat on an IMF loan released in tiny tranches. The Financial Action Task Force has kept Pakistan on such a tight leash over possible blacklisting on terror financing, that ordinary people are beginning to feel the pinch. The pandemic has also taken its toll. The demand for cotton yarn from India came from textile manufacturers in Pakistan’s Punjab province after a steep fall in the cotton yield on their side sent prices of the commodity spiralling and caused a crisis in the country’s main manufacturing and export industry. Pakistan’s self-goal on April 1 will hit them first.
By now, it should be clear to all that Delhi is not going to restore J&K’s special status. The promise of restoration of statehood minus Ladakh may take place, and this could take time. But after the standoff with China at the LAC in eastern Ladakh, Delhi no longer underestimates the need for peace on the western front. There can be no joy in how Pakistan is finding it hard to come out of the corner into which it has painted itself. India could make it easier for Pakistan by lifting the 200 per cent tariffs on Pakistani imports imposed after the Pulwama attack. Restoring the hugely popular cross-LoC trade and bus service would also strengthen the hands of peace-builders across the border.