Keep the process on track

PAKISTAN PROVIDED THE opening and India pounced. That is a brief summary of the debate that unfolded in the United Nations General Assembly over two days. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf thought he could buck the trend in international public opinion and distinguish between militancy for "legitimate causes" and terrorism pure and simple. He also contradicted himself, just as he did barely a month ago, when he ascribed the violence in Jammu and Kashmir to indigenous causes and yet claimed that he could scale it down if India reciprocated. The military ruler apparently forgot that his country's support for cross-border terrorism has only been temporarily overlooked by the international community. Pakistan's failure to give the required support to anti-terror operations in Afghanistan and its complicity in terrorism directed at India have not gone unnoticed. General Musharraf's effort to portray his support for terrorism in Kashmir as springing from noble causes may yet rebound on him. In the short term, his address offered provocation, and provided an opportunity, to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Prior to the General Assembly session, Minister for External Affairs Yashwant Sinha signalled that India was ready to break the habit of using international fora for public disputes with Pakistan. Mr. Vajpayee was clearly unable to resist the temptation to take advantage of General Musharraf's miscalculation. While references to Pakistan formed a relatively small part of the Prime Minister's address, the Musharraf-triggered controversy has not helped the prospects for reconciliation in the subcontinent.

The latest exchange of rhetorical fusillades proves the wisdom of the policy India has followed since the Prime Minister initiated the most recent peace effort. The truce between India and Pakistan is too delicate to be subjected to the shock administered by any effort to grandstand. This time India kept to a steady pace and a middle-key approach in its efforts to re-engage with Pakistan. It avoided a hasty rush into exchanges at the Ministerial level even as it took measures to restore normality through the resumption of full diplomatic relations and the revival of people to people contacts. This approach reflected the assessment that creating and strengthening goodwill between the people of the two countries would help create an atmosphere for discussing the substantive and critical issues in a constructive manner. While this effort at normalisation made slow progress, it did proceed in the right direction. An attempt was concurrently made to unravel the different strands of the India-Pakistan entanglement, with minor issues quickly sorted out. In its projection of policy, India also indicated that it would not again resort to aggressive military postures in the manner it did after the terrorist attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001. From the response of the Pakistani public, it appeared this measured approach has registered some success. The responsibility of both sides, in the wake of the fire exchanged at the U.N., is to keep the process initiated five months ago firmly on track.

It will be sensible to clear the track of the fall-out and debris from the public dispute before the Prime Minister travels to Pakistan early next year for the SAARC summit. The unspoken accord between India and Pakistan to insulate SAARC, to the maximum extent possible, from their bilateral differences is still fragile. Constituencies in India opposed to the attempted d�tente will dwell on General Musharraf's short-sighted confrontationism as they press Mr. Vajpayee to hedge on, if not withdraw from, the summit. Pressing on with his current course, the Prime Minister must firmly reject such importunings. The enhancement of people to people contacts, economic cooperation, and cultural and sports exchanges between the two countries is necessary for the restoration of normality.

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