NEW DELHI – The atmospherics still exude cordiality as India’s Foreign Minister Natwar Singh rounded off his numerous meetings in Islamabad with Pakistani policymakers with a one-on-one conversation with Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
But the initial euphoria, optimism and effusiveness of last week are yielding to caution, worry, and fear that the two nations’ latest effort at dialogue and peace may not yield results soon.
Going by reports of the discussions Singh has had with his counterpart Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri and other officials, the exuberance and mutual bonhomie evident in recent months have evaporated.
Put simply, neither government now appears keen to make a bold move forward. There are few signs of a shared high-level political mandate for specific agreements.
If there is no progress in the dialogue before Natwar Singh and Kasuri meet on Sept. 5-6, the entire process could unravel.
That would be an enormous setback. If India and Pakistan were to resume their rivalry suspended since former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made an overture to Pakistan by holding out the “hand of friendship” in April last year it is liable to be far more bitter and vicious than in the past.
To avoid such a terrible setback, it is necessary that the two countries’ top leaders take the initiative and make unmistakably positive and generous gestures to each other, while personally owning up to the peace process.
In particular, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must do all he can to prevent an impasse and impart momentum to the dialogue.
This may sound pessimistic. But as things stand today, there is unlikely to be a smooth path to peace, in which confidence-building measures precede, or go simultaneously with, substantive agreements on disputed issues.
The best instance of this is the Indian proposal, first made in October last year, for a bus service across the Line of Control between the capitals of the two divided parts of Kashmir, Srinagar in India, and Muzaffarabad in Pakistan.
The idea has evoked widespread support in both Kashmirs. Pakistan did express some reservations about the nature of documents to be carried by the passengers, which India holds should be normal passports and visas. But it was expected, until earlier this month, that these would be overcome.
But now, the Pakistani stance has hardened. It will not have bus passengers carrying national passports, as distinct from UN documents or special “for-Kashmiris-only” permits. It is even objecting to the inclusion of personnel from the Indian part of Kashmir into the delegation that participates in the “technical discussions” on the bus issue due in September.
No other confidence-building measures are on the fast-track negotiation agenda.
Many Pakistani leaders and officials, including Musharraf, have dropped hints that they want to see some substantive progress toward a resolution of the Kashmir issue before they can take confidence-building measures like the bus service seriously.
Their apprehension is that once the bus starts rolling, its very operation will be seen as a de facto legitimization of the Line of Control more or less as an international border, thus narrowing the range of solutions to Kashmir to “Line of Control-plus” or “soft-border” formulas, which are tilted in India’s favor.
India, for its part, has expressed its own concerns about “cross-border terrorism.”
The two could not fully reconcile their positions at the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation ministerial meeting last week, for which Natwar Singh went to Islamabad.
What has changed in the very recent past is the Pakistani perception of how far India is willing to go to resolve Kashmir. Many Pakistani policymakers have been uneasy about the change of government in India.
They see Vajpayee as “a tall leader,””a man of peace” uniquely committed to historic reconciliation with Pakistan. Indians who know Vajpayee better consider this view rosy and hyperbolic. He has had a long record of Pakistan-bashing and Islamophobia. But the image nevertheless carries a lot of weight with Pakistanis.
By contrast, Pakistanis think of incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a “technocrat” or academic, not a politician who can think out of the box and take risks. This, again, may underestimate the man and altogether discount the possibility of evolution. But the perception persists.
Besides, many in Islamabad wonder who exercises real power and authority in today’s India and commands foreign policy Manmohan Singh, Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, Natwar Singh?
This too may disregard the fairly strong consensus that exists in India on improving relations with Pakistan.
Pakistani officials feel they have received few hopeful signals from New Delhi since Manmohan Singh was sworn in two months ago.
The first signal to come from Natwar Singh was negative: he spoke about finding a Kashmir solution on the basis of the 1972 Shimla Agreement. This, signed immediately after the Bangladesh war, is not popular in Pakistan. Singh soon clarified that he mentioned Shimla in a spirit of friendship and that he was not raking up the past.
In his recent interactions with Pakistan too, Singh has come across as a highly cautious and staid leader averse to risks.
Islamabad also believes that India played up the issue of “dismantling” the support structure for terrorism in Pakistan, especially during the July visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. In Islamabad, Armitage refused to retract his statement asking Pakistan to do more to dismantle that structure.
All this has led to creeping suspicions on each side that the other may not be sincere about breaking new ground. If present trends persist, it may not be possible to prevent an impasse even by reiterating the importance of the “composite” nature of the dialogue, including Kashmir and seven other issues.
Musharraf and Manmohan Singh should now set up both formal and informal-level contacts and demonstrate a strong, visible commitment to the peace process, including a willingness to move away from stated positions.
It is imperative that Singh personally takes charge of the peace process and invests in it.
That will help create confidence and a good comfort level in Pakistan. Absent confidence, trust and hope, things could soon spin out of control.
(Inter Press Service)