A Time for Para Diplomacy or Sub-State Diplomacy
May 22, 2024


  • In its recent manifesto, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) made a bold proposition: the retrieval of Kartarpur Sahib from Pakistan through a negotiated exchange of territory.
  • Now, this idea may seem as implausible as the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) promise to integrate Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) into India.
  • However, it reflects a deeper desire to alter the nature of the India-Pakistan border from a zone of confrontation to one of cooperation and economic integration.

Practical Challenges Associated with BJP and SAD’s Territorial Ambitions

  • The SAD’s proposal to renegotiate the Radcliffe Line in Punjab or BJP’s claim to take back PoK has many challenges.
    • Changing the territorial status quo along the Radcliffe Line in Punjab or winning back PoK, either peacefully or through the use of force might not be impossible but it is quite hard.
  • Such changes would not only destabilise the already fragile territorial status quo but also provoke significant resistance, given the historical and ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan.
  • More feasible, however, is the reimagining of these frontiers as avenues for commerce and collaboration rather than conflict.
  • This pragmatic approach aligns with the SAD’s additional demand to reopen the Attari and Hussainiwala borders with Pakistan for trade and tourism, aiming to boost economic prosperity in the region.

The Hurdles of Economic Cooperation Between India and Pakistan

  • Political and Military Resistance in Pakistan
    • A significant barrier to economic cooperation lies in the stance of Pakistan's military and political establishment.
    • Over the decades, the Pakistani military has maintained a firm position against economic engagement with India, primarily due to unresolved issues surrounding Kashmir.
    • The military's influence over Pakistan's foreign policy has often outweighed the economic rationale for cooperation.
    • Even when there were signs of a potential thaw, such as the February 2021 ceasefire agreement, internal opposition has swiftly curtailed these initiatives.
    • The then Prime Minister Imran Khan’s brief consideration of resuming trade ties with India faced vehement resistance from powerful factions within Pakistan, illustrating the deep-seated reluctance to normalize relations without a resolution to the Kashmir issue.
  • Historical Context and Suspicion
    • The historical animosities between the two nations, stemming from the traumatic partition of 1947 and subsequent wars, continue to fuel mutual suspicion and distrust.
    • These historical grievances have not only shaped national narratives but also influenced contemporary policy decisions.
    • It has made difficult for either country to fully commit to economic cooperation without addressing underlying political tensions.
  • Lack of Reciprocal Trade Policies
    • On the trade front, Pakistan has consistently refused to grant India the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status, which is a fundamental step towards facilitating normal trade relations.
    • India had granted Pakistan MFN status in 1996, aiming to promote trade and economic ties.
    • However, this gesture was not reciprocated, and following the Pulwama terror attack in February 2019, India withdrew the MFN status from Pakistan.
    • This move marked a significant setback in bilateral trade relations, further exacerbated by India’s revocation of Jammu and Kashmir's special constitutional status in August 2019, which led to Pakistan suspending all trade ties.
  • Economic Rationality vs. Political Baggage
    • Despite the clear economic benefits of trade, Pakistan’s establishment remains hesitant to engage with India.
    • This hesitation is largely due to the baggage of historical conflicts and the overarching Kashmir issue, which overshadows potential economic gains.
    • There have been instances where the Pakistani business community has advocated for reopening trade ties with India, recognizing the mutual benefits.
    • For example, under Shehbaz Sharif's government, there were calls from Pakistani businessmen to resume trade, reflecting a pragmatic understanding of the economic advantages.
    • However, these appeals have often been stifled by the political and military elite, who prioritize geopolitical concerns over economic pragmatism.
  • Regional Stability and Security Concerns
    • Security concerns further complicate the economic relationship between India and Pakistan.
    • Both nations have accused each other of supporting cross-border terrorism, leading to heightened military vigilance and frequent skirmishes along the border.
    • The perpetual state of alert not only hampers trade but also fosters an environment of hostility and mistrust, making it difficult to envision a stable economic partnership.
    • The ongoing conflict and the threat of terrorist activities cast a long shadow over any efforts to normalize trade relations.

Proposal of New Approach to Better India-Pak Relations

  • Formulation of Special Economic Zones
    • The SAD’s manifesto also proposes transforming the Punjab border into a special economic zone to foster small and medium enterprises, an idea that could revolutionise India-Pakistan relations.
    • This vision extends to the possibility of Pakistan establishing a similar zone on its side, promoting integrated development and economic interdependence.
    • Such an initiative could mirror successful models of cross-border economic zones in Southeast Asia and China’s collaborative efforts with neighbouring countries.
  • Employment of Para Diplomacy
    • Central to these proposals is the concept of para diplomacy or sub-state diplomacy, where provincial and local governments engage in formal interactions to advance national interests.
    • This approach has the potential to navigate around the rigid stances often held by national governments, offering fresh avenues for cooperation.
    • Historically, efforts at para diplomacy between East and West Punjab have occasionally surfaced but have not endured due to overarching national conflicts.

Way Forward: The Need for Consensus and Cooperative Federalism

  • To achieve sustainable and productive economic cooperation between India and Pakistan, it is essential to nurture a strong consensus between the central government and state governments, particularly those in the border states.
  • This cooperative federalism can pave the way for innovative diplomatic approaches and ensure that the interests of local populations are adequately represented and addressed.
  • Historically, India's federal structure has seen tensions between the central and state governments, especially regarding foreign policy and cross-border cooperation.
    • The varied political landscapes across Indian states often lead to conflicting interests and priorities.
    • For instance, West Bengal's engagement with Bangladesh has seen complexities due to differing perspectives between the state's leadership and the central government.
    • Similarly, Tamil Nadu's influence over India’s policies towards Sri Lanka has been significant, often complicating bilateral relations due to the state’s concerns about the Tamil population in Sri Lanka.
  • Cooperative federalism involves the collaboration of national and state governments to achieve common goals, respecting the autonomy of state governments while aligning their objectives with national interests.
  • Therefore, this approach can be particularly effective in managing border relations and developing economic cooperation with neighbouring countries.


  • The next Indian government, regardless of its political orientation, should consider para diplomacy as a strategic tool in its foreign policy toolkit.
  • This approach necessitates not only a robust dialogue between the centre and the border provinces but also a concerted effort to align the interests of the people living in these regions with broader national objectives.
  • By embracing para diplomacy, India can pave the way for a more peaceful and economically prosperous relationship with Pakistan, transforming contentious borders into bridges of cooperation.