NEW DELHI – Before Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met last Friday in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations, no one could have forecast how their first-ever talks would turn out. As it happened, their scheduled 15-minute one-on-one meeting extended to an hour.
The two men who would have traded hostile rhetoric at the UN General Assembly had they followed the by-now-familiar script came out looking pleased. They effusively declared the India-Pakistan dialogue "historic" and their own discussions a successful "essay in mutual comprehension." They sincerely vowed to carry forward the dialogue.
By available indications, India and Pakistan, who have fought a continuous hot-cold war for 58 years with each other, will now launch the second phase of their dialogue, which they agreed to start in January, and which has proceeded in fits and starts so far.
The joint declaration issued in New York commits the two to implement the many confidence-building measures (CBMs) that they have discussed while "keeping in mind practical possibilities." It also says that "possible options for a peaceful negotiated settlement of the [Kashmir] issue should be explored in a sincere spirit and purposeful manner."
But behind this cautious, modest formulation is a good deal of understanding based on behind-the-scenes consultations between senior officials, including national security advisory chiefs who reportedly held four "secret" meetings between them.
The Indian assessment is that Musharraf is sincere about keeping his promise to stop supporting "jihadi" militants active in Kashmir. As Manmohan Singh put it, he is someone "we can do business with."
Musharraf too believes that Singh "is very much interested in peace," and is "an extremely sincere and straightforward man" who has the desire to resolve disputes.
The Pakistani president says the Indians "have absolutely understood Pakistan’s viewpoint," and this is a major compliment.
This new atmosphere of goodwill and trust is partly explained by the successful preparatory talks at the level of high officials and partly by the pressure of public opinion in both countries, which favors reconciliation.
Also, the two governments responded positively to expectations from the major powers particularly the United States of a subcontinental détente.
A significant part was also played by the personal chemistry between the two leaders. Musharraf evidently charmed Singh by carrying gifts, including a drawing of the school Singh attended in a poor village near Islamabad in undivided India.
Earlier, the Pakistani leadership had developed a very special, exclusive, affinity for former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Until a couple of weeks ago, it was suspicious of the four-months-old Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government of Singh. Now it appears to have revised its stand.
Although the two governments are still guarded about saying anything on resolving their high-altitude military conflict at Siachen glacier, Pakistan is reported to have told India that its troops would not try to occupy the heights that Indian troops might vacate.
The glacier, at a height of 20,000 feet or 6,000 meters-plus above sea-level, has been the site of a bitter struggle over boundary demarcation. The two countries spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on stationing troops there. Many more soldiers have died at Siachen from the cold than from (frequently traded) gunshots.
Even more significant are reports that the two governments are close to resolving their differences over starting a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, the capitals of the two divided parts of Kashmir.
The main disagreement pertains to the nature of identification papers the passengers should carry. Until recently, India insisted on personal passports, but Pakistan fears that will weaken its claim to Kashmir. It wants some other (essentially local) identity papers.
Now the two are believed to have come to a compromise passports are carried but not stamped. If passports are not available, a local certificate of residence would suffice.
Whatever the solution, it is important that the bus service starts running soon. That could be a tremendously powerful confidence-building measure and will be heartily welcomed on both sides of Kashmir.
On another front, India and Pakistan are at an advanced stage of negotiating an overland natural gas pipeline from Iran to India that will be highly cost-effective for energy imports. Pakistan stands to earn between $400 million and $1 billion a year as transit fees from the project.
There is also a proposal for a diesel pipeline from India to Pakistan (which imports a good deal of that fuel from the Gulf, of which Indian refineries in the far North have a surplus). The pipelines assume a high level of security and mutual confidence and an assurance that supplies will not be interrupted if tensions break out itself a major CBM.
Apart from canvassing support for the pipeline project, New Delhi has also taken some welcome unilateral steps by relaxing visa regulations for Pakistani nationals.
For the first time, Pakistanis can visit India as tourists, and restrictions such as compulsory daily reporting to the police will be lifted. And senior citizens will have privileged access to visas and so will journalists who will get multiple-entry permits.
This move augurs well for the next phase of the India-Pakistan dialogue. Yet, difficulties remain. The biggest pertains to Kashmir, the vexed issue on which Pakistan hinges its definition of nationhood, and India says is an "inalienable part" of itself.
Progress on Kashmir is likely to be slow. But it is significant that both states have committed themselves to begin discussing the issue "out of the box."
In New York, Singh asked Musharraf to spell out alternatives to the idea that the existing line of control should be converted into an international border (the preferred Indian position). Musharraf said he would get back to him on this. If some concrete proposals are put on the table, the two governments can at least begin to talk.
Even if no agreement is reached immediately, Pakistan will feel assured that India is serious about discussing Kashmir for the first time in decades. That, and the absence of strife and "jihadi" violence in Kashmir, will itself be a big gain.
Such gains can defuse tension and lead to normalization of relations, greater economic cooperation, and more people-to-people contacts in the subcontinent. This will be a worthy outcome.
(Inter Press Service)