Efforts at achieving normal relations and peace between South Asian rivals India and Pakistan have collapsed or run into a dead-end so many times in the past.
Thus, it is only rational to ask if their latest attempt at a breakthrough is for real and likely to succeed. Doubts persist on this even after Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf issued their joint statement hailed as ”historic” at a South Asian summit on Tuesday.
And yet, a simple answer to this complex and nagging question is possible: the peace process is real and authentic, but it is fragile and can be derailed. India and Pakistan will have to make special efforts to consolidate it in the next few months.
The momentum in favour of reconciliation is much stronger today than it was in Lahore, Pakistan in 1999 or Agra, India in 2001, when the heads of the two governments met. Lahore took place barely nine months after the India-Pakistan nuclear tests, which raised grave fears of a possible Atomic Armageddon.
The summit process did launch a bus service between Delhi and Lahore and it half-attempted nuclear confidence-building and transparency.
But the Pakistan army was deeply suspicious of the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif and tried to undermine the peace process by instigating a border intrusion at Kargil in Kashmir along the Line of Control (LoC) that runs through it.
That precipitated history’s greatest conventional war between any two nuclear weapons-states. The peace momentum was lost.
The Agra summit meeting of July 2001 between Vajpayee and Musharraf failed to resolve differences over the ”core issue” — for Pakistan, Kashmir; and for India, an end to ”cross-border terrorism”.
Indian leaders did not feel reassured that Pakistan had really called off its infiltration in Kashmir. India’s hawkish interior minister, Lal Krishna Advani, vetoed a draft declaration after it was agreed by Vajpayee.
This week’s meetings between Vajpayee and Musharraf and between Vajpayee and Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali in Islamabad, on the sidelines of the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), took place against a qualitatively different backdrop.
This backdrop was one against a post-Sep. 11 climate that underscored the issue of terrorism to India’s advantage, the United States’ continuing war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, which transformed Washington’s relations with Islamabad, and a series of modest confidence-building measures (CBMs) between India and Pakistan from October onwards. The CBMs sustained the positive tempo generated by Vajpayee’s Apr. 18 offer of the ”hand of friendship” to Pakistan from Srinagar, capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir.
However, far more important were ”back channel” interactions, in particular, between India’s National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra and his counterpart Tariq Aziz and Musharraf’s aide Hamid Javed.
These prepared the ground for top-level interactions on the sidelines of the summit of the seven-member SAARC on Jan. 4 to 6 in Islamabad.
A critical ingredient of the process was the Indian insistence on a visible reduction in Pakistan’s support to militants’ infiltration into Indian Kashmir.
On the ground, there has been a perceptible change in this. Pakistan announced a ceasefire across the border in Kashmir effective Nov. 26. India reciprocated. This has held remarkably well.
Not to be discounted are the roles played by external powers, especially the United States and Britain. The U.S. government offered a 3 billion U.S. dollar aid package to Musharraf in June, making it conditional upon ”cooperation” in the ”war on terrorism”, improved relations with India, and greater internal democratisation.
U.S. pressure mounted in recent weeks with new disclosures about Pakistani scientists’ role in transferring sensitive nuclear technology and components to North Korea, Iran and most recently, to Libya.
Washington insists that Musharraf show greater moderation in nuclear policy and in relations with India while cracking down on Islamist hardliners.
Neither the Lahore nor the Agra summits was preceded by preparations. By contrast, elaborate preparations and favourable circumstances preceded the Islamabad meeting.
Underlying the preparations is a major change in Pakistani ”mindsets”. Much of the Establishment there has realised that the costs of running a militant operation from Afghanistan to Kashmir have been extremely onerous for Pakistan. Extremists have penetrated key institutions of the Pakistani state.
The most lethal indications of their power were assassination attempts on Musharraf on Dec. 14 and 25, 2003. These highlighted the grave internal danger from extremist Islam.
Here lies the most important key to the success of the dialogue, which both India and Pakistan have agreed to resume in February. The Musharraf leadership will have to go to the logical end in isolating militant Islamists and cleansing state agencies of their influence.
This will not be easy. Musharraf stands accused by Pakistan’s right-wingers and conservative nationalists of having ”betrayed” the cause of Kashmir.
Some believe that he has ”sold out” and conceded too much to India (and the United States) without getting much in return. Yet others find fault with his tactics and language, although not with his overall strategy.
To sustain the peace process, Musharraf must convince or silence some of his domestic critics by citing concrete gains from a dialogue with India. The critical issue here is Kashmir, which has got entangled with the very definition of nationhood and national identity in the two countries.
No one can reasonably expect a workable, durable solution to Kashmir to emerge in a short period. But if the process of discussing one continues, it can itself become the product.
Indian leaders must appreciate Musharraf’s difficulty and help him. The best way to do so is to propose and negotiate more and more CBMs, including visa relaxation, greater people-to-people contacts, tourism promotion, and scientific and technological cooperation. They must, above all, combine these with positive moves on Kashmir.
Among these could be a unilateral, phased reduction of Indian troops stationed in the Kashmir Valley by, say, 50,000 or so. Their total strength is claimed by Islamabad to be 700,000. A more realistic estimate may be 400,000 or so.
Of great significance will be a gradual ”softening” of the Kashmir Line of Control. A good beginning has been made with the proposed bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in Pakistani Kashmir. This needs to be followed with the opening of more entry points and border-trade posts.
A precondition for the success of these moves is that India must appear to be generous and large-hearted. As the bigger of the two countries, and with greater resources, it can take unilateral measures without waiting for Pakistan’s reciprocal gestures.
This needs a major decision — to make a clean break with the sordid past of mutual recrimination, bloody-minded rivalry and spiralling hostility.
One can only hope that Vajpayee does not subordinate this decision process to the compulsions stemming from the next parliamentary elections, expected to be advanced to April-May. The litmus test of leadership lies right here.