Reason for Hope

India and Pakistan reach tentative agreement

Amitabh Pal

Indians and Pakistanis can finally breathe a bit easier.

The past four years have been nerve-wracking for the more than 1 billion citizens of India and Pakistan. The two countries fought a “limited” conflict in the summer of 1999, and twice in the past two years they have been on the brink of full-scale war, perhaps involving nuclear weapons.

So it was quite welcome—and astonishing—when, on April 18, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee extended India’s “hand of friendship” to Pakistan during a visit to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a province that both India and Pakistan claim. Vajpayee followed up with a May 2 announcement to India’s Parliament that India would re-establish full diplomatic ties and transportation links with Pakistan as a precursor to a peace dialogue. “The talks this time will be decisive,” he said. “At least in my life, this is the last time I will be making an attempt. I am confident I will succeed.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali responded by calling Vajpayee and offering to meet with him “in the cause of peace.” Shortly thereafter, Pakistan announced that it was reciprocating India’s steps. “The entire international community is watching with hope and expectation,” Jamali said.

Vajpayee is an unusual peacemaker. He heads the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has its genesis in a Hindu-oriented nationalism hostile to Pakistan. So why did he make this move—and why now? “One possible reason lies in internal BJP politics, with Vajpayee reasserting his role as a moderate,” says M.V. Ramana, co-editor of Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream, an analysis of the nuclear situation in South Asia. “Second, conditions in Kashmir are different after the election of a new state government there.” (In state elections last fall, a Kashmir-based party was elected that is more sympathetic to demands for greater Kashmiri autonomy.)

Another motive is Vajpayee’s desire to leave a lasting legacy in the region. “Vajpayee, 79, is unlikely to run for re-election in next year’s national vote and longs to establish peace on the subcontinent before he ends his 50-year political career,” Manjeet Kripalani writes in BusinessWeek.

To his credit, Vajpayee has twice made similar efforts in the past. In 1999, he undertook a journey to Pakistan. And in 2001, he invited Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, to India. His attempts were undone by recalcitrance on the part of Pakistan and dissent from hard-liners in his own party.

In any upcoming talks, Vajpayee will again have to contend with uncompromising elements in the Pakistani army—elements that have financed and trained the Kashmiri militancy, much to India’s anger. He’ll also have to stave off pressure from within his own party and from allied organizations that make up the Hindu right. “I am surprised that despite such bitter experiences in the past, the government is repeatedly talking peace with Pakistan,” says Giriraj Kishore, senior vice president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council). “Those who do not learn from past experiences bring harm to themselves, and if such a person happens to be a leader, he suffers, and so does the country.”

The process will be more cautiously planned than in the past, with both sides indicating that a lot of work needs to be done before a summit meeting occurs. Given the mutual distrust, a considerable amount of care needs to be taken to ensure the negotiations do not again reach a dead end. “I am pessimistic,” says Ramana. “I fear that the issues of Kashmir and cross-border terrorism are two subjects that may … derail the talks.”

For some time, the United States has been urging India and Pakistan to compromise. Its Iraq victory has provided additional heft with which to pressure the two countries. It has complicated its role, though, by attempting to balance an alliance with Pakistan, which it needs to hunt down al-Qaeda, with friendship with India, the world’s second most populous nation. Vajpayee’s peace overture came days before a visit to the region by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Armitage called on Musharraf to completely halt infiltration of Kashmiri militants across the border—even though similar American pleas have gone unheeded before—and praised Vajpayee’s move as “an act of statesmanship,” while rejecting a high-profile American role in the negotiations.

What does the peace process mean for nuclear disarmament in the area? Disappointingly, probably not much. As a gambit, Pakistan offered to get rid of its weapons if India got rid of its arsenal, too, knowing that India would reject the offer. Predictably, Vajpayee dismissed the proposal, saying that India’s nuclear program was not Pakistan-centered.

Still, any lessening of tensions lowers the chances of a nuclear apocalypse in South Asia. The region’s people may not yet have cause to celebrate, but they do have less reason for worry.

Amitabh Pal is managing editor of The Progressive. He can be reached at amideepa@​merr.​com.
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