India-Pakistan ties over the past decade have been a mixed bag. There have been significant tensions, especially in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, and the beheading of Indian soldiers across the Line of Control (LOC) in August 2013. Amid these tensions, however, there have been noteworthy achievements in the realm of bilateral trade, where trade through the Wagah-Attari land route has gone up nearly four-fold from $664 million (2004) to approximately $2.6 billion (2012-2013) (Source: Ministry of Commerce).
In addition to bilateral trade, there has been an emphasis on increasing connectivity between border regions, especially the two Punjabs and Rajasthan-Sindh. Some of the important Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) include the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus service, and the weekly Munabao-Khokhrapar train service, called the ‘Thar Express’. There has been an emphasis on making ‘borders irrelevant’ as was envisioned by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It is not just the two Punjabs and Rajasthan-Sindh that have made efforts to rekindle economic and cultural ties, there have also been interactions between businessmen from Gujarat and Karachi. A Pakistani delegation, which visited Gujarat in 2011, in fact invited Narendra Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat and the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to visit Karachi.
The aim of my research report “Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab: The Need for a Border States Group,” is to examine the approach of the political leadership, as well as the business community, in these three ‘border States’ towards India-Pakistan ties. It is very simplistic to link the sentiment in a State with one singular factor: economic, political or cultural. This paper has sought to look at a number of factors, which include politics, economics as well as security issues. It has also attempted to get the views of a reasonably broad spectrum of people from different ideological persuasions. Most importantly, I have ascertained the views of individuals from both the Union Government and the State governments, in this regard.
During the course of my research, other issues emerged as well. For example, one point that was reinforced through my research was the issue that only with the opening up of a land route will the groundswell in support for cross-border trade between India and Pakistan emerge in both Rajasthan and Gujarat. One of the main reasons cited for Punjab aggressively pitching for closer commercial ties with Pakistan is the fact that a land route for trade – Wagah-Attari – is already open for trade.
Another important point that emerged from the study was that within a State, regions that are closer to the border are more eager to open up trade and enhance people-to-people contact. This includes Barmer (Rajasthan) and Kutch (Gujarat). It would be important to point out that during the recent parliamentary elections, the former External Affairs Minister and independent candidate from Barmer, Jaswant Singh, had made the opening up of the Munabao-Khokhrapar land route for trade an important issue. He also spoke about the necessity of increasing the frequency of the Thar Express, which unites separated families from Rajasthan and Sind. Other regions within the two States have not exhibited enthusiasm for accelerating economic relations with Pakistan.
In fact, if one were to examine the role being played by Chambers of Commerce in these States, the Zonal Chapters of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and larger Chambers such as the Rajasthan Chamber of Commerce and the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce have not shown much fervour in lobbying for opening up more land routes for trade with Pakistan.
In Punjab on the other hand, there is a much stronger political consensus across different regions, with both political parties of the State, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (Congress) speaking in favour of opening up more land routes for trade. The election manifesto of the SAD has also listed opening up of more land routes for trade with Pakistan as an important poll issue.
The State units of the Congress and the BJP have also spoken in favour of stronger trade ties with Pakistan. Senior BJP leader, Arun Jaitley, who fought the election from Amritsar spoke in favour of increasing the level of bilateral trade with Pakistan, via the Wagah-Attari land route. Apart from a strong political consensus in Punjab for enhanced trade ties, it would be pertinent to point out that Chambers of Commerce in Punjab have been more aggressive and pro-active in pitching for cross-border trade with Pakistan.
In Punjab, it is not just regional chambers of commerce like the PHD Chamber which have been lobbying earnestly with the State and central governments for liberalising the trade regime with Pakistan, but even the CII’s zonal offices have been enthusiastically pitching for closer trade ties. Though there are differences in the level of enthusiasm exhibited by different border States, for trade ties with Pakistan, there is scope for learning from each other’s experiences as well as jointly lobbying with the Union government.
One clear instance is the issue of liberalising the visa regime. The current visa regime with its restrictions is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to closer trade relations. Interactions between businessmen of both countries is virtually impossible, since getting a visa is a tedious process and there are unnecessary restrictions – the biggest being that visas are city-specific. Currently, businessmen and politicians from all three States look at each other as competitors, but there is a case for them to join hands, and if possible, form a grouping to exert pressure on the Union government as has been argued in this paper. In addition to this, there are serious deficiencies in the nature of CBMs mentioned above which have been discussed in detail in the paper, where State governments – Rajasthan and Punjab – can explore common ground.
(The complete text of the Public Policy Report “Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab: The Need for a Border States Group” will be available shortly on this website.)