Pakistan has decided to open the Kartarpur Corridor to facilitate Sikh pilgrims from India. In fact, it is part of concerted efforts by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government to improve relations with India and all neighbouring countries. The Indian government has not responded to the initiative for its internal political situation as general elections in the country are due in April or May, but it is hoped the project will pave the way for the normalization of relations between the two nuclear-armed countries.
Pakistan has taken the initiative despite a rising number of ceasefire violations by the Indian Border Forces in 2017 and 2018. According to the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), India violated the Line of Control (LoC) at least 2,593 times and killed 55 civilians and injured more than 300 in the current year. As Indian delegates attended the Kartarpur Corridor groundbreaking ceremony in Narowal, Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj announced that her country would not attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) conference, if it was held in Pakistan. She also brushed off any possibility of improvement in relations between the two countries and again accused Pakistan of terror activities. “There will be no dialogue with Pakistan,” she told reporters. After the refusal, Pakistan will not be able to convene the event for the third year as participation of all member states is mandatory for the convening of a SAARC summit.
However, despite a snub by the Indian government and negative propaganda by a section of the Indian media, many analysts on both sides have pinned high hopes on the corridor. According to the Indian Express, the conflicting voices and messages from the government and politicians on the Kartarpur Corridor have shown India in an unflattering light. “Reading between the lines of the Indian leadership’s strategic incoherence on Kartarpur, it seems that despite claiming that it was originally an Indian proposal, Delhi was caught unprepared by Pakistan’s readiness to open the corridor. The contradictory statements recall the flip flop India did two months ago on the foreign ministers’ meeting in New York, first announcing that it would be held, then abruptly calling it off. The Kartarpur Corridor presented the greatest opportunity in a decade to break the impasse with Pakistan. India should have signalled its assent to the holding of the SAARC summit. But in election mode, the Modi government, trapped by its own rhetoric, seems inadequate to the task of rising above itself,” it said in an editorial.
Explaining India’s “non-exuberance,” the Times of India noted, “A number of factors both domestic and bilateral can help explain the Indian government’s measured and non-exuberant presence at the event. Firstly, in the recent past too often has India been left stranded while extending a hand of friendship, there are a plethora of examples with the latest being the Pathankot attack shortly after Prime Minister Modi’s unannounced visit to the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Christmas in 2015. Secondly, political compulsions of an impending general election have also shaped the government’s response to the event, most will agree that peace with Pakistan and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s bid to win re-election on the back of a call to build a temple in Ayodhya certainly make for strange bed-fellows. However, the third consideration, which could possibly explain the BJP-led government opting to engage with Imran Khan’s government at such a politically inopportune moment for itself, is a possible thought within the Indian security establishment that the incumbent government is one they can do business with. And it is only now that, prima facie, there is a sense that all government institutions in Pakistan, the military, executive, legislature and judiciary are on the same page. Therefore, while this third assessment doesn’t have backing, in fact, it certainly isn’t outside the realm of possibility. This is all on the premise that the Indian government aspires to uphold Vajpayee’s legacy and wishes for a peaceful subcontinent in the future.” The newspaper observed the Kartarpur project would compel India and Pakistan to engage in a positive and purposeful manner, at a time when few other avenues for engagement existed. “It is a reminder that dialogue and search for areas of concord are the only way forward for both countries.” The Hindustan Times termed it a positive gesture from Pakistan. “Much of the last seven decades since Partition have been a story of zero-sum games that have kept us apart. In that limited sense, the agreement to have a corridor linking Gurdaspur’s Dera Baba Nanak to Kartarpur Sahib is a welcome augury,” it noted.
Both countries and their people can immensely benefit from the normalization of relations. According to a recent World Bank report, trade between Pakistan and India could reach $37b. “The current trade between the two countries is much below its full potential. It could only be harnessed if both countries agreed to tear down artificial barriers. Pakistan’s potential trade with South Asia could surpass $39.7b against the actual current trade of $5.1b,” the report titled Glass Half Full: Promise of Regional Trade in South Asia, said.
According to the Washington Post, there is no chance for an immediate breakthrough for India and Pakistan but if there is to be even incremental progress between the two nuclear-armed nations that have fought four wars, Prime Minister Imran Khan is presently India’s best bet. “Unfortunately, controversial statements on both sides of the border led to a downward spiral. At the Kartarpur opening, Imran Khan mentioned Kashmir, an obvious irritant for India. Then, Khan’s foreign minister added to the friction by boasting that India had been played. India sent two (Sikh) federal ministers to attend the ceremony. Congress Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu (whom Khan knows from his cricketing past) was also present. In Pakistan, the Indian ministers likened opening the pilgrimage route to the fall of the Berlin Wall,” veteran Indian journalist Barkha Dutt wrote.
For the time-being, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is more interested in elections than the peace initiative and offers of peace talks by Pakistan. However, experts hope India will not be able to ignore Pakistan’s moves longer and would have to come to the negotiation table to resolve all outstanding issues for face-saving before the world.