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A Surprising Thaw on the Subcontinent

India's new approach to Pakistan assumes an engagement that honors their differences.

May 11, 2003|Paula R. Newberg | Paula R. Newberg is an international consultant who recently returned from South and Central Asia.

WASHINGTON — Diplomacy is back in business in South Asia. After months of hot tempers and frozen relations, India's invitation to Pakistan last week to talk, and Pakistan's immediate and enthusiastic acceptance, means that plain good sense could return to the subcontinent. Just because talking is a good idea, however, doesn't mean that it's enough to repair the fractured Indo-Pakistani relationship -- or that a good idea will necessarily work. Both countries have defied their own expectations in thinking about ending their pugnacious behavior, but India is keen to hold the upper hand. Can controlled change turn into a passion for peace?

Until last week's surprise proposal, bellicosity ruled relations between the two nuclear powers. India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee seized every opportunity to hold Pakistan responsible for cross-border terrorism, persistent violence in Kashmir -- even the rise of militant Islam. His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party tilts increasingly rightward to unite its vision of India with a Hindu-centric ideology. India's Muslims, however, are becoming victims of state policies and restive nationalist crowds.

Vajpayee's foreign policy usually reduces Pakistan to caricature, and Pakistan often proves India's point. Even after striking an anti-terrorist alliance with the U.S. and freeing his country of American sanctions as a result, Pakistan's right-leaning president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, hasn't cut ties with extremists, reduced the role of the army in Pakistani politics or rethought his foreign policy. His nationalism tolerates only a faint democracy and seeks an expanding role in Kashmir.

No place has felt the enmity between India and Pakistan more than Kashmir, the land both countries claim as their own. In the days surrounding Vajpayee's announcement, Hindu families and Muslim militants were killed, shooting resumed between Indian and Pakistani forces along the border, and Indian television's Srinagar studio was attacked. India's anti-terrorist laws now apply to journalists in Kashmir, who describe their jobs as "a catwalk on a razor's edge."

But if a new round of talks proves fruitful, it may be because Vajpayee's party caters to Hindu communalists and Musharraf's government, now laced with conservative religious parties, has refused to close down some militant camps in Kashmir. Their ties with the extremists, despite outside pressure to end the relationship, gives each leader some leverage to pursue new policies. Many observers have contended that with extremists as the main constituents, South Asia seems almost destined for war. For the same reason, conventional wisdom in India suggests that Vajpayee can't improve relations with Pakistan without losing his political base. Clearly, Vajpayee thinks otherwise.

India's new gambit assumes a different kind of engagement with Pakistan. The last 15 years have witnessed innumerable ups and downs in Indo-Pakistani relations. Each round of consultations assumed that to get along, the two countries needed to become more like one another. But as their roles in the global economy and polity have diverged, this assumption doesn't work. Now, Vajpayee seems to be saying, let us prosper in our differences. He's guessing this will suit Musharraf. And if tensions decrease, extremists might be neutralized, too.

How risky is this? At one level, very. Unfriendly nuclear neighbors challenge even the most ardent advocates of deterrence. But in other ways, India has little to lose. Although it complains about renewed relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, India knows its growing economy appeals to business-minded Americans. And as long as the U.S. and others promote its military as a counterweight to China's -- in part by selling weapons, including Israeli missiles that the U.S. is reportedly hawking to the army -- India can sell the idea of regional harmony without having to change too much, too fast -- or even at all.

But even a little improvement in relations can mean a great deal to Pakistan. Its relatively small economy has suffered from U.S. sanctions and Indian-imposed trade and travel embargoes. As sanctions have been lifted, it has relied on debt-forgiveness to acquire some fiscal flexibility. (Last week, Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz announced that Pakistan would ask the U.S. to write off an additional $1.8 billion.)

The Pakistani government also knows that it walks a thin line with its allies. The army still stands behind its 1999 incursion into Kashmir, though the U.S. considered it a breach of trust. And no matter how many Al Qaeda operatives are caught by Pakistan, many in the West continue to blame Islamabad for once supporting the Taliban.

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