Prime Minister Vajpayee has earned a place in history as the man who gave India and Pakistan their best chance for peace yet. But to move from a line in history to an entire chapter, he needs to ensure that India and Pakistan actually agree to the measures that have been spoken of during the SAARC summit in Islamabad.
The decision of the two nations to go in for a composite peace process, to discuss the range of issues such as trade, terrorism, Kashmir, give reason for hope. To Vajpayee goes the eternal credit for his willingness to go the extra length. It was he who agreed to resume India-Pakistan ties after the dangerous military buildup of 2002; now it was he who agreed to talks, putting aside the condition that cross-border terrorism must stop before any dialogue. On these building blocks of give and take must the future peace structure be built, slowly and steadily.
Before we get carried away, it would be pertinent to insert a note of caution. Far too often in the past have we believed that India and Pakistan were on the verge of a breakthrough when actually all that happened was every step forward was followed by two steps back. The Lahore process is too recent and too fresh in our minds for any of us to ever believe that mere words and even the best of intentions are by themselves enough. In Pakistan, what one government proposes can often be disposed by another, especially if the successor comes to power through a coup.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf is perhaps the best example: in 1999, going against the grain of his then boss, Nawaz Sharief, he destroyed the Lahore peace process on the heights of Kargil. India and Pakistan must now remain extremely wary of some general or jihadi somewhere plotting to do an encore to the Islamabad process. In fact, India has to be on high alert to thwart those against the peace process, who will surely become active now.
Furthermore, while the anti-Pakistan lobby in India may be vociferous but has limited influence, the anti-India lobby in Pakistan is not only extremely influential, but also in a position to jeopardize the peace process. Such anti-India baiters exist in the Pakistani army, the powerbrokers of that nation, and within the millions who believe in jihad, again a powerful group.
But if there is reason for greater hope after Islamabad then there was after Lahore, it is for two reasons.
First, currently Pakistan's army chief is the president, making the army a part of any final solution. This was not so during the Lahore talks. The army remains the most powerful powerbroker in Pakistan, their assent to any deal is of paramount importance. Also, the army alone today can curb any over-enthusiastic jihadi desperate to wreck the peace process and is, hopefully, disciplined enough not to see a mutiny against the peace process.
The bigger reason is the international situation. The Islamabad breakthrough has taken place in the post 9/11 world when terrorism is no longer acceptable, unlike the Lahore bus ride which took place in a world that still had to realise that terrorism afflicts all. Post-9/11, Pakistan's much vaunted support for the 'freedom struggle' in Kashmir, as Islamabad would put it, sells little in the world. Freedom struggles are fine, any terrorism in support is not. The same jihadis who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan are no longer welcome against India in Kashmir. Islamabad realizes that to back the jihadis in Kashmir is to risk international isolation and opprobrium.
Today, India has the best chance after 1972 to finally resolve the Kashmir dispute. An international environment where terrorism is seen as the greatest scourge of mankind; India's growing ties with the world's sole superpower, the US; and India's booming economy giving it economic muscles to flex, all of them give New Delhi an unparalleled opportunity to settle the Kashmir dispute.
Diplomats and historians believe that after the 1971 war, India missed a once-in-a-lifetime chance to resolve the Kashmir dispute once and for all while negotiating the peace process. What happened then is beyond this article, but before the world's opinion against terrorism starts to fade, before the circumstances change to make India's attractiveness shine less, New Delhi must push for a solution.
Finally, regardless of what India might say officially, Islamabad is nearer the truth when it says that that for any lasting peace on the subcontinent, any solution that does not take into account the Kashmir question will remain incomplete. Pakistan dearly believes this Muslim-majority state, or at least the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, should be a part of Pakistan; India insists that religion cannot be the basis for making a nation and will not consider parting with the valley, much less the entire state.
Though any final solution will involve some give and take, in the end there are two options: That each side keeps what it posses (India's favoured solution) or that at least the Kashmir valley becomes a part of Pakistan while India retains Jammu and Ladakh (Pakistan's preferred choice).
It is difficult to see India hand over the Kashmir valley. The fact that the LoC has existed for so many years gives it a quasi-international border status. Perhaps, Pakistan realizes it may have to remain content with the part of Kashmir it holds. But to assume this is the solution is go too far ahead. The negotiators will discuss the questions.
Ironically, any solution favouring one actually places a burden upon the other: How to compensate the one on the losing side of the bargain? The politicians, diplomats and intellectuals need to ponder this question deeply so that we all emerge winners.