It is not the national capitals of India and Pakistan but the border provinces which can playa constructive role in pushing for robust economic ties even during times of tension
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to give high priority to India’s ties with its immediate neighbours. The invitation to leaders of SAARC countries for his swearing in ceremony was the strongest illustration of this point. While many had predicted that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would decline the invitation, he attended the ceremony in spite of pressure from certain quarters in Pakistan. The Indian Prime Minister and his Pakistani counterpart had a brief meeting on the day after the swearing in. Even while the two leaders made attempts to establish a personal rapport, over the past few months relations between India and Pakistan have not been particularly cordial. Tensions across the Line of Control (LoC), cancellation of Foreign Secretary-level talks, and Mr. Sharif’s mention of Kashmir at the United Nations have not helped the bilateral relationship in anyway.
Yet, one thing which is clearly visible in the context of India-Pakistan relations is the importance of bilateral trade. It is not the national capitals, but the border provinces including Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and to some extent Rajasthan which can play a constructive role in pushing for robust economic ties even during times of tension.
A reasonable degree of success has been achieved in the context of the two Punjabs. In spite of tensions at the national level, the political leadership of the state, Chambers of Commerce and members of civil society have played a constructive role in building an appetite for peace since the past decade. Governments of different political persuasions have batted for closer linkages between the Punjabs. It was a Congress-led government headed by Captain Amarinder Singh which began reaching out to Punjab (Pakistan), and the current Akali government has also supported closer economic ties and people-to-people contact. Chambers of Commerce on both sides have also forged strong linkages.
It is important that other border regions think along similar lines. Some imaginative thinking on both sides could also help in linking another border, Gujarat-Sindh. This may seem unthinkable and utopian in the current situation where New Delhi-Islamabad relations are frosty. Over the past decade whenever things have seemed beyond redemption, it is strides in the economic sphere which have helped in rebooting the rather vexed relationship. While it is issues like Sir Creek and the problems of Gujarati fishermen which get all the attention, the potential of economic ties between Gujarat and Sindh seldom gets media coverage. It would be pertinent to mention that there has been some mention of the possible import of electricity to Pakistan by the Adani Group, which is setting up a power plant at Kutch.
What is often neglected is that the business communities of Gujarat and Karachi are keen to cement close economic ties. In the past, businessmen from Surat had close links with Karachi, while Kutch and Sindh shared strong cultural and economic bonds. Exchanges between Chambers of Commerce have been an important feature of the endeavour to revive economic ties between the two regions. The Southern Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry signed an MoU in November 2013 for enhancing cooperation between the two Chambers. In 2011, a delegation from Karachi had attended the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, and some Pakistani businessmen had met with Mr. Modi, who was then Gujarat Chief Minister. An invitation was in fact extended to Mr. Modi to visit Karachi.
The Gandhidham Chamber of Commerce and Industry had also written to both the State and Central government in 2011 to open three possible land openings through Kutch. It remains to be seen if the current government, which is keen on trade and connectivity with neighbouring countries, looks into the demands of the Chamber.
The role of the Gujarati diaspora
Another important stakeholder in improving the relationship between Gujarat and Sindh could be the Gujarati diaspora. Mr. Modi has sought to make the diaspora an active participant in India’s development, as was clearly visible from his address in Madison Square Garden. The Gujarati diaspora is arguably the most economically affluent and politically influential. With some imaginative thinking, it can play a part in bridging ties between the two countries in general, and Gujarat and Sindh in particular, especially since a large section of Gujaratis belongs to the border regions of Kutch and Kathiawar.
Certain Gujarati castes, including, in the case of Hindus, the Lohanas and Banias, and in the case of Muslims, Khojas, Bohras and Memons, have especially distinguished themselves in trade and commerce globally. Significantly, Muslim Gujarati communities have family spread across both Gujarat and Sindh. For them, any closer integration and cooperation between Gujarat and Sindh would be undoubtedly most welcome.
In conclusion, in the current situation it may seem a bit unrealistic to think of economic ties between Gujarat and Sindh. But if the political leadership in both the countries, business chambers and members of the diaspora work together, the possibility of economic linkages cannot be ruled out.
(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a senior research associate with the Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat, and Shyamal Kataria is a Political Science PhD candidate at the University of London, U.K.)
While it is issues like Sir Creek and the problems of Gujarati fishermen which get all the attention, the potential of economic ties between Gujarat and Sindh seldom gets media coverage