What if India and Pakistan really got along?

Placeholder while loading article actions

Once in a while – but not too often – it’s worth tossing around an idea that hardly anyone agrees with, if only to keep the discourse fresh. With that in mind, consider my last entry in this category: The status quo between India and Pakistan is temporary. The world should start thinking about a future in which the two nations have a fundamentally different relationship.

Full reunification, of course, is hard to imagine. But there are many possible options that fall short of this: a loose confederation, a NAFTA-style trade structure, a military alliance, even a larger regional reconfiguration in which each nation loses territory but the remaining parts closer.

I have discussed these and related ideas with many knowledgeable Indians and Pakistanis, and the response has been very… halfhearted. They offer numerous and valid replicas. There are growing religious tensions in India, they say. Many Indians, especially in southern India, feel no particular historical connection to Pakistan. The two countries cannot even resolve the Jammu and Kashmir conflict. Pakistan is too close to China. India’s ruling party is doing too well under the status quo. Trade and travel between the two countries are becoming more restricted, not less. The border is one of the most militarized in the world.

Like I said, all valid points. What about the arguments on the other side? They are mostly longer term.

First, it should be noted that major boundary shifts – whether by conquest, secession, or unification – are the historical norm. In this regard, the post-colonial era is an anomaly. According to some, this era of relative stability will continue. Another is that it will prove temporary and frequent border changes will become common again – just as the border between Russia and Ukraine is once again being disputed.

If this second view is correct, India and Pakistan are not such old, well-defined nations that they are natural candidates to remain exactly as they are. Their borders and political arrangements can change rapidly.

Second, overseas communities of Indians and Pakistanis are growing, with significant presences in North America, Europe and the Gulf States. These communities deal with the Indo-Pakistani relationship in their own way, and many of them come from backgrounds where Indians and Pakistanis are good friends and generally get along well. It is possible that these communities will become more influential in India and Pakistan, as will their tendency to promote greater harmony.

A third factor is the viability of the nation-state of Pakistan. The country, founded in 1947, recently requested its 23rd (!) bailout from the International Monetary Fund and is on the verge of another financial crisis. The current account deficit is skyrocketing and the currency is collapsing. When is it fair to say that the current arrangements are simply not working? India’s per capita GDP continues to diverge from Pakistan’s.

In any sane world, India and Pakistan should be extremely close economic partners. Yet their current bilateral trade is only $514 million and it is not easy to travel between the two countries. It’s not crazy to think that something fundamental has to give way, even if it’s decades away.

Finally, at least parts of Pakistan bear a remarkable resemblance to parts of India, notably the state from which I write this: Punjab, which was divided by partition and a version of which exists in every country. These two Punjabs are similar in terms of religion, cuisine, culture, history and, for lack of a better word, vibe.

How many times in history have such similar places come together? In the 1970s, Irish reunification seemed absolutely impossible. Yet today Sinn Fein has won a national election in Northern Ireland and reunification is being actively debated – and may even be likely within decades.

The geopolitics of South Asia is different, but it could still translate into closer ties between India and Pakistan. China could threaten the two countries, pushing them towards a cooperative relationship. Or Pakistan and India could grant greater autonomy to their constituent political units, and these units could then forge new cooperative relationships.

These scenarios don’t have to seem entirely plausible. But it’s worth taking risks every once in a while to overcome recency bias – the view that things are as they should be. And once you realize that the future can in many ways be a radical departure from the present, the possibilities for the India-Pakistan relationship start to look very different.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Sino-Indian relations cannot sink any lower: Ruth Pollard

• India’s 75th anniversary is to be forgotten: Mihir Sharma

• India and Pakistan are as bad as the British: Pankaj Mishra

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the Marginal Revolution blog. He is co-author of “Talent: How to Identify the Energizers, Creatives and Winners in the World”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

Comments are closed.