In a radical departure from established thinking, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has proved that you can change the meaning of “neighbour”. A neighbour should be defined by reach, not proximity. Geography is an accident, which can be circumscribed. Let us take a relevant example. I have not counted but there are surely over 500 flights, each one loaded to passenger capacity, between India and the Gulf every week. There are no flights between India and Pakistan. So, who is India’s neighbour: the Gulf or Pakistan? Compare people-to-people relations to our immediate east and west. At Benapole, the border crossing with Bangladesh, thousands cross with casual ease within 15 minutes. It is a warm, civilised space. Between Amritsar and Lahore lies the frontier at Attari. It is frozen. Its only attraction is a rather grandiose simulation of drill by the border forces of the two countries every evening. Bangladesh is a neighbour. Pakistan lies at a desolate distance. The productive bilateral social and economic IndoBangla engagement speaks for itself. As, indeed, does the wasteland between India and Pakistan.
Aborted peace move
Shehbaz Sharif’s quickly aborted peace overture should be placed in context with his despairing speech on the economic crisis in his country. A nation with fertile agriculture and much aspiration in the 1950s has crumbled into a country whose operative symbol has become a begging bowl. Sharif admitted that the humiliation of asking for loans which would never be repaid was becoming too hard to bear. Even mentors and close friends seem to have had enough. China will not write off its beneficial investments. Qatar is asking for Pakistan’s national assets as either repayment or collateral. The UAE’s recent decision to roll over $2 billion is not charity, simply common sense. Since Pakistan does not have the capacity to meet its obligations, this was the only practical way of keeping the loan on the books. This is the art of pseudo-solvency.
Pakistan has no leverage left for negotiations. With foreign exchange reserves dipping below $5 billion, Pakistan is getting closer to default each day. The bustle and bravado towards the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are history. Islamabad has keeled over and accepted all the major conditions set by IMF as a precondition for the resumption of discussions. This means more suffering for the people as subsidies are slashed. As one writes, there is both a literal and figurative darkness over Pakistan that has enveloped the people in the gloom of despair.
Betrayal by ruling elite
The true tragedy is the consistent betrayal of the Pakistani people by their self-centred and self-satisfied ruling elite. Despite a starved treasury, Pakistan has spent more than a billion dollars in the past six months on imports of luxury cars. This is only a symptom of an incurable disease. Pakistan’s elite buys Birkin handbags for $10,000 on foreign jaunts while citizens struggle to buy flour for their daily bread. This is the simple truth.
Here are a few random examples of stagflation and shortage picked up from news of the past month; this is a glimpse, not a comprehensive list. On January 23, the Peoples’ Revolutionary Front, along with regional outfits in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), began organised protests against food and power shortages, escalating unemployment and untamed inflation.
In Balochistan, Mir Asadullah Baloch, a provincial minister, has complained that Islamabad has not sent federal funds amounting to over 50 billion rupees. Gwadar has become a focal point for continuing protests against Islamabad’s discrimination and Chinese “exploitation”, their preferred term for the Chinese presence in the region.
This is the onset of a summer of rage. Industrialists who have had to shut down hundreds of factories and economists who look at data have told the authorities that if the present situation continues, there will be rioting all over the country by March.
Russian delegation visit
The one instance of positive news was the presence of a Russian delegation in Islamabad which promised energy, albeit with a caveat: Moscow would accept payment in the currency of a third country since Pakistan did not have dollars and no one had faith in the local rupee. Perhaps Moscow means the Chinese yuan. Beijing is not known to hand out currency in return for a handshake.
There was one aspect of the Russian move which could well be part of a separate chess game. We do not know, and can examine the bare outlines that are visible. President Vladimir Putin sent a special message to Shehbaz Sharif describing Pakistan as Russia’s “key partner in South Asia” and the Muslim world and expressing his interest in a deeper political and economic relationship.
Such phrases are not strewn about as seasonal goodwill. They are used with care. What could this mean? Moscow and Beijing are working towards a strategic axis in Asia aimed at limiting American influence. Is Pakistan, which has been a conduit for Western arms to Ukraine, being corkscrewed out of ambiguity into a specific camp? The ripples of war can be subterranean. The war over Ukraine will change equations in its magnetic field. Prime Minister Modi has established the contours of a credible Indian position that seeks solutions through dialogue rather than war.
But when storms spread havoc and change ground realities, there is merit in patience and wisdom in silence. This will be a year of strategic volatility. There will be greater clarity only when the storm dust begins to settle.
(Concluded) (The writer is a veteran journalist and author of several books)
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