Is India’s power diplomacy with Pakistan in national interest?

It is official now. India is all set to embark on power diplomacy with Pakistan. On 27 May 2013, India proposed to Nawaz Sharif, then prime minister-elect and now the prime minister, to help extricate Pakistan out of its acute energy crisis by selling Pakistan electricity on commercial rates.

But then this positive initiative from India may not be as simple as it looks – just like any initiative in the Indo-Pak peace process, no matter who is pitching the initiatives, India or Pakistan.

There is a flip side to the Indian initiative.

While India’s gesture of expressing its willingness to export electricity and natural gas to Pakistan where power cuts of up to 20 hours a day are said to be common is commendable, any Indian gesture has to be ultimately weighed in on the larger and much-convoluted big picture in the India-Pakistan bilateral relations.

India went ahead with this gesture thinking that if it comes to fruition, it will go a long way in building ‘trust’ between the two irreconcilable neighbours, apart from being an act of ‘good neighbourliness’. But the Indian government cannot ignore the opinion of its own citizens in this regard.

One of the purposes behind this article is to trigger a debate among the growing tribe of educated Indians who are increasingly giving their unabashed views about anything and everything, particularly the foreign policy initiatives of the Indian government.

Irrespective of what is being said or discussed in the media, most Indians will find it difficult to believe that Pakistan is sincerely interested in cultivating good neighbourly relations with India. The Pakistanis like to define themselves as the antithesis of India and the foundation of that country was laid on the specious ‘two-nation’ theory that ruled out co-existence of Hindus and Muslims. Exporting power will not take away those facts.

This whole thing about exporting power, electricity and gas, to Pakistan looks bizarre. India, particularly North India from where the electricity will be exported to Pakistan, is acutely deficient in power supply. The power cuts here may not be as bad as in Pakistan, but it is also a fact of life this side of the Attari-Wagah border.

Yes, technically there is a ‘surplus’  power in India—when it cannot be consumed. And since electricity cannot be stored it is better to export the surplus. But is it not possible to use the ‘surplus’ within India, or North India, with better grid management that allows instant transfer of power from the surplus to the deficient area? Like all previous summers over the last decades, Delhi and almost all parts of North India have suffered power outages. Short power supply is a daily occurrence. The peak demand for electricity often finds a supply shortfall of over 500 mw, the quantity that is supposed to be earmarked for export to Pakistan.

A newspaper report on June 11, 2013, for instance, said that the shortage in power supply in the Northern Grid was 3000 MW, which affected Delhi’s share of 250 mw. The shortfall of this magnitude may not be routine, but shortage is reported almost the year round. If it is not Delhi, it is some other part of the region or the country that reports power shortage and all the problems that flow from it. It also needs to be noted that the demand for power all over the country has been constantly shooting up.

If one is not mistaken, the Indian proposal to export electricity to Pakistan was first floated when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the prime minister. The Kargil adventure of Gen Pervez Musharraf made sure that the matter was dropped. Then India-Pakistan relations took another nose dive when terrorists from Pakistan attacked Mumbai, killing over 160 innocent citizens, including many foreigners. In the last one or two years when some renewed efforts have been made to reduce tensions between the two countries, the electricity (and gas) export project has been pursued actively by India.

In order to export electricity, India is ready to transfer power from the Northern Grid by laying a new 40-km transmission line in Punjab to reach the international border on the western side of which lies Pakistan’s second largest city and its cultural capital, Lahore. Supplying 500 MW to Lahore will be a big help considering the long outages, but it will not end the woes of the citizens in that city, much less the Pakistani Punjab.

Within a few days after Nawaz Sharif was sworn in as prime minister of Pakistan, an Indian delegation consisting of officials from the ministry of petroleum and the Gas Authority of India Limited (Gail) left for Lahore to explore the feasibility of supplying liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Pakistan.

GAIL is reported to have submitted a report on the possibility of supplying about five million cubic metres of gas per day to Pakistan to the national security adviser (NSA), Shivshankar Menon. The Indian offer of gas supply is reported to have been first made to Pakistan about a year ago. The LNG will actually come from Qatar to India and then exported to Pakistan. Quite a circuitous way since the India-Qatar sea route passes through Pakistan waters.

But what seems to be surprising is that in the name of ‘goodwill’ India is willing to forego any profit in supplying to Pakistan the LNG it imports from Qatar. The idea behind this altruistic offer is that it will encourage Pakistan to cooperate in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project, the project that America blesses while it objects to any gas pipeline project that links Iran with the sub-continent.

Could it be that the Indian munificence is the result of a signal from the US? Despite all the hate that Pakistan has now reserved for it, the US is hell bent upon appeasing the land of the pure. One of the promises made by the US to Pakistan is that it will help the latter tide over its power crisis. Since the US cannot directly export electricity to Pakistan, could India have been asked to step in?

This is a matter that can be speculated upon. But what appears certain is that for India it will remain a near impossible task to win any goodwill in a Pakistan where paranoia rules the hearts and minds of all and sundry. On the rare occasion when they talk of improving relations with India, the Pakistani politicians and media preface their idea for building good neighbourly relations by insisting that all these years it is they (Pakistani) who have given many ‘concessions’ to India without getting anything in return. They refuse to accept their role in exporting terror to India.


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