Vajpayee's Bus Journey Starts a Thaw in Glacial India-Pakistan Relations

By M, M. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

Vajpayee's Bus Journey Starts a Thaw in Glacial India-Pakistan Relations


M, M., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Vajpayee's Bus Journey Starts a Thaw in Glacial India-Pakistan Relations

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's February bus trip from India into Pakistan may be a positive development in relations between the two countries. However, it would be a mistake to read too much into it.

It certainly marked a thawing of the tension that had mounted in the subcontinent following the May 1998 nuclear tests carried out by both sides. But unrestricted land travel between India and Pakistan may not come about for a while. Certainly it will be some time before a crossing between the two countries becomes as routine as passage between the United States and Canada.

Real normalization of IndianPakistani relations still depends upon resolution of the Kashmir dispute, the cause of two of the three wars between the two countries in 1947, 1965 and 1971. Nevertheless, Vajpayee's initiative and the warm reception he received in Lahore from Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif has opened up a dialogue between them.

It is obvious, too, that intensive shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Under Secretary of State Strobe Talbott over the past eight months had a role in the warming trend. Talbott chose to make public a summary of his talks with Indian and Pakistani leaders during several visits to Delhi and Islamabad in an article he wrote for the Foreign Affairs March/April 1999 issue.

In dealing with his talks on nuclear nonproliferation, he has treated India and Pakistan evenhandedly and ignored India's contention that its nuclear program is not geared toward Pakistan but is designed to give itself an effective capability to defend against China's nuclear threat.

Talbott went on to tell India publicly that where the U.S. may endorse Japan and Germany for permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council when the question arises, it does not support India's ambition to become a permanent Security Council member.

He also said Washington is willing to scale down the economic sanctions imposed against both India and Pakistan following their nuclear tests if Delhi and Islamabad desist from producing any more fissionable material and agree to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

From his article it appears that Washington has finally accepted the reality of the nuclear weapons programs of both countries and is prepared to work with them. As Talbott put it: "Having India and Pakistan stabilize their nuclear competition at the lowest possible level is both the starting point and the near-term objective of the U.S. diplomatic effort...The Clinton administration does not expect either country to alter or constrain its defense program simply because we have asked it to."

VAJPAYEE'S VISIT TO PAKISTAN

It is ironic that it is Prime Minister Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party government, which is wedded to the establishment of Hindutva (land for the Hindus alone) and is opposed to the existence of Pakistan, that has initiated the process of improving relations between the two neighboring states. The agreement signed at the end of the Vajpayee visit to Pakistan read: "The two sides shall engage in bilateral consultations on security concepts and nuclear doctrines, with a view to developing measures for confidence-building in the nuclear and conventional fields."

While there were vague references to ways to avoid the accidental use of nuclear weapons, there was no mention of signing a treaty banning nuclear first-strikes or of any concrete steps that would be taken to resolve the underlying Kashmir dispute. The agreement stated only that the two governments "shall intensify their efforts to resolve all issues, including the issue of Jammu Kashmir." Nevertheless, Vajpayee's visit marked an improvement in the otherwise glacial relations between the subcontinent's two largest countries.

SHARIF'S MANAGEMENT STYLE

Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif won big in the last elections and his Muslim League party enjoys a clear majority in the National Assembly, ensuring him political stability.

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