Did the sage-poet Ved Vyas have a premonition of how things would turn out in this land when he wrote the timeless epic Mahabharat, the tale of two armies of blood brothers annihilating each other? However, one wishes, literary verisimilitude does not extend to the grim ending.
Judging by the recent moves towards peace and normalization, as much as these things are possible in the convoluted subcontinental context, the contemporary tale may yet end up having a different denouement -- for which reason alone the efforts should be lauded and carried forward.
Cynics and sceptics of such attempts, including this writer, have a valid point when they argue that genuine peace between the two countries is not feasible, but a counter is it should not shut India from trying to achieve peace with honour.
Governments on both sides of the border may have their own compulsions for doing the things they do -- but the fact remains that a constituency for peace exists in both nations. Given the ties of history, language, culture and religion that bind the two peoples, this group needs to be heard out. For the presence of this ginger group in India and Pakistan has so far stayed the hand away from the nuclear button -- indeed, if both nations were filled with only war-mongers Vyasa's vision would have become a reality long ago.
I was a witness to the tentative moves Prime Minister A B Vajpayee and then Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharief took towards a dialogue in 1998 at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. It was the first time that the leaders of the two newly inducted members of the Nuclear Club were coming face to face. What exactly happened between the two premiers in private one never got to know, but the tension in the air as the two made their cases separately told its own tale of just how nettled the path before the two countries is.
It is precisely for this reason that it needs to be walked upon as often as possible, if for no other purpose than to ease the hurdles for later use.
The peace efforts between India and Pakistan often resemble a yoyo -- sometimes up, sometimes down. Could bloody history alone have muddied the waters so, or did the present too have its own devilish hand to play? Either way, unless the two nations come to resolve their differences in a civil manner, put aside irreconcilable differences for later and move ahead on issues they agree upon, the future of more than one billion people will always be held hostage to the past and present.
The simple and obvious fact is, India-Pakistan differences have stymied development in the region and made a mockery of SAARC. As new economic powerhouses light up across Asia, it is tragic that a region with such immense potential languishes in poverty and lack of progress.
India and Pakistan can contribute to altering this dreary script by settling their differences, or continue with the sorry spectacle they trot out every once in a while.
Previous attempts at rapprochement did not work so should this round be any different? It could be, for the following reasons:
India believes, and a significant section of the international business community shares this view, that after painful decades of poverty it is standing at the cusp of breaking free. Domestic business sentiment, thankfully, is reflective of this belief and responsive to the challenge ahead. But true prosperity cannot be had without peace -- a view that seems to have percolated down in the ruling federal alliance. The hawks have thankfully fallen silent, at least for now.
For Pakistan, obviously, the stakes are higher than they are for India. Its desperate alliance with the United States in the battle against terrorism notwithstanding, there are not many takers for its claim to have turned over a new leaf. Showing that it means business when it comes to peace with India -- towards which its mentor and provider the US has been nudging it all too perceptibly -- is its best bet to prove its critics wrong.
Unlike Colombo in 1998 there is no vestigial bitterness clogging the pipes now. Unlike Lahore in 1999 and Agra in 2001 hype is not giving way to substance this time round. There is an important break from how the two nations conducted their affairs in the past.
Earlier, everything would hinge around the summit between the two leaders, and the rest of the initiatives was expected to flow from it. Thus, if the summit bombed -- as it did in Colombo and Agra -- we went back to square one, which was essentially zilch.
This time round the substantive elements in the relationship are not being ransomed to the leaders' personal chemistry or lack of it. Thus it is not even important if Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf indulge in bilaterals in Islamabad or not -- for too long SAARC has suffered for this manic desire for a photo-op. There are enough opportunities for the two leaders to exchange pleasantries in Pakistan, so let them not allow spinmasters to herd them down a needless course. SAARC is a regional forum, let it not lose focus of its goals, let not India-Pakistan hijack its agenda as has happened so often in the past.
Plus this time there is the political factor. Beyond the border, unless an assassin succeeds in his suicidal mission Musharraf is going to dictate the destiny of his nation for time to come, just as in India the Bharatiya Janata Party is not going to relinquish its hold on power in a hurry. The traditional belief has been that only the army in Pakistan and the Hindu right in India can really make peace -- maybe it is the right time to put this to test.