For six decades, Pakistan held relations with India hostage to the demand that the Kashmir dispute should be settled first. Successive military regimes upheld this retrogressive view of the bilateral relationship, insisting that normalisation could not happen without resolving the “core issue” of Kashmir. The return of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan after a spirited struggle has brightened prospects for better relations with India. Pakistan’s new leaders, particularly President Asif Ali Zardari, have implicitly promised to break with the old paradigm, which was based on mutual suspicion. For its part, political India has made it clear that it looks forward to working with the new democratic dispensation in Pakistan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent meeting with President Zardari in New York appears to have imparted new momentum to the peace process. A particular gain for India is the assurance given by Mr. Zardari that the new government in Islamabad will stand by General Pervez Musharraf’s January 2004 commitment that Pakistan would not allow its territory to be used for terrorist activities against India.
The fact that a democratic regime is in place in Islamabad has made it easier for New Delhi to restart the composite dialogue with confidence and fresh hope. While acknowledging that the process has been “under strain” in recent months, the two leaders have affirmed their determination to defeat the enemies of detente. Pakistan, which recently suffered a calamitous terror strike, recognises that it will be to its advantage to make common cause with India in fighting terrorism. The two leaders have done well to agree that the joint anti-terror mechanism will meet next month to address “mutual concerns,” including the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. The political willingness of the new dispensation in Islamabad to address India’s longstanding concerns over cross-border terrorism bodes well for the normalisation process. Mr. Zardari believes that the best way to “re-invent” relations with India is to develop bilateral trade. It is certainly significant that the two leaders have agreed to open the Atari-Wagah road link, which has been closed to normal traffic of goods and people for 43 years, and the Khokrapur-Munabao railway route for trade in “all permissible items.” Another bold and imaginative gesture, which will have its own resonance in the context of the recent agitation in the Kashmir Valley, is the decision to allow trade across the Line of Control. Mr. Zardari’s evident eagerness to break new ground with India has injected a new dynamism into the bilateral relationship. Now is the time to put the composite dialogue back on track and move forward boldly and imaginatively.
6 months ago