Coauthored with Shamshad A Khan, and first published on IDSA website, here
Following Pakistan’s decision to grant MFN (Most Favoured Nation) status to India, the Pakistani media indulged in a heated debate over the issue. In line with their traditional stance, the English media took a progressive stance and supported the government’s decision. However there was a tangible division within the Urdu media on this issue.
The Pakistani Urdu press traditionally portrays India as an existential threat with which no compromise is possible until all outstanding disputes, prominently Kashmir, is resolved. This time too, many editorials opined that trade relations with India should not be pursued until India resolves the Kashmir issue. However, an alternate narrative has been adopted by some newspapers like Jang and Express - the two largest newspapers in circulation - as well as by the Peshawar based Mashriq daily.
Express, in its editorial1 of November 4, opined that “this decision is a proof of the fact that our leadership not only realizes the changing realities but also is taking practical steps to reflect the change.” On the same day, Jang took the stand that Pakistan has no option but to choose “trade over aid” and added that “pursuing deeper trade relations will create a congenial atmosphere for resolution of more serious disputes.”2 This stance is contradictory to the dominant discourse in the Pakistani Urdu media, which places conflict resolution over trade or other such issues.
However, Jang dialed down its initial euphoria subsequently by advising India to show more flexibility on the issue of Kashmir. >3 Interestingly, the latter editorial on November 12 did not criticize the Pakistan government’s decision on the MFN status. It is possible that the criticism of India could have been a rhetorical ploy and part of a balancing act to satiate the anti-India lobby and reaffirm Jang’scommitment to the Pakistani state.
In line with their traditional stance, a section of the Urdu press reacted negatively to the government’s decision. The anti-India rhetoric was formulated on two planks. Firstly, many editorials argued that increased trade with India would dilute Pakistan’s stand on the Kashmir issue. These arguments coincided with the line taken by Jamaet-e-Islami Chief Munawwar Hassan who termed the MFN status to India as “stabbing in the backs of Kashmiris” by the Pakistani authorities. Secondly, many viewed a liberal trade regime as being inherently disadvantageous to Pakistan and were concerned about the possibility of Indian goods flooding the Pakistani markets.
Newspapers like Ausaf were generally suspicious of India’s intentions and took a pro-military line. The following extract from Ausaf is particularly revealing in this regard: “We will call upon Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, President Zardari, ISI Chief Shuja Pasha and all the patriots to save Pakistan from this kind of agreement.”4 The sequence of ‘patriots’ reveals the inherent ideological bias of the newspaper. Similarly, an editorial in Nawa-i Waqtequated the government’s decision with the “Fall of Dhaka” 5 and criticized the civilian regime for following a policy which was antithetical to Pakistan’s national interest. Similar views were expressed by other regional newspapers in Pakistan like Khabrein, which enjoys considerable circulation in Punjab.
The difference in the stance taken by Khabrein and Mashriq, the former based in Punjab and the latter in Peshawar, is particularly striking. Mashriq has taken the view that providing MFN status to India would help rectify past mistakes. 6Although the association might appear tenuous, this difference in their stances is perhaps indicative of the public mood in the two provinces. The Punjabi middle class is traditionally seen as pro-military with a deeper anti-India bias as compared to their counterparts in Peshawar and the frontier areas, where the India factor is perhaps an issue with lesser significance compared to the ongoing conflict in that area.
Another newspaper, which is generally viewed as conservative and pro-military, isUmmat. Thus, it was no surprise when it expressed strong reservations about the civilian government’s decision to grant India the MFN status. However, its editorial was of particular significance because it inadvertently gave an insight into the changing dynamic of civil-military relations in Pakistan. A report in Ummat quoting a “reliable” source stated that during a briefing on the MFN issue given by the Foreign Minister to ISI Chief Shuja Pasha and other leaders, the military was not particularly happy with the civilian government’s policy vis-à-vis India. The paper reported that the DG ISI wanted to know “why the government is so close to crossing the line on national security.” 7 The editorial added that the military leadership was not entirely convinced by the Foreign Minister’s explanations.
This report indicates that there is disagreement between the military leadership and the civilian establishment on the issue of granting MFN status to India. Based on the information given in the article, two possibilities can be hypothesized. The first possibility is that the army reluctantly tolerated the civilian government’s stance in spite of reservations. If this was indeed the case, then it is quite possible that the civilian government and possibly the trade lobbies were successful in over-riding the military’s opposition.
At the same time, it is also possible that the army itself exercised some restraint. In an interview to one of the authors, Muhammad Ziauddin, Managing Editor of the Express Tribune, 8 stated that there is in fact some rethink going on within the military. Although it would be far fetched to say that the anti-India lobby in the establishment has lost influence, it is possible that there is a difference of opinion within the military leadership leading to lack of consensus, which could have been exploited by the civilian government.
Whatever the case, it cannot be denied that the political class in Pakistan is being more assertive than usual. In a recent statement, the Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhary asserted that any attempt by the army to act without the orders of the federal government would be considered as unconstitutional. 9 Such statements indicate that although the military is going to remain dominant in the near future, it is no longer being treated as a holy cow.
Many observers have said that Pakistan’s fragile economic condition on one hand and India’s growing economy on the other have forced Pakistani policymakers to rethink their equation vis-à-vis India. However, it is still early and one needs to keep in mind that the anti-India lobby still exercises a lot of influence on the decision making process and the local media. Having said that, the approval from some sections of the Urdu media for the grant of MFN status to India is indeed a welcome sign and it cannot be ignored.
Some critics have argued that the MFN status is only a small step and not a giant leap as it is being portrayed. Be that as it may, the importance of the MFN status issue lies in the debate that the agreement has initiated in Pakistan, which could influence both the internal political structures of the country as well as the way it deals with its neighbours.