Cautious optimism seems to be the underlining principle in the breakthrough in Pakistan-India relations. Recent initiatives are a welcome change from the atmosphere of hostility and near war like situation that loomed over the region for the past two years. The April 2003 initiative by Vajpayee and the guarded yet positive response from Pakistan has paved the path for yet another beginning.
Some questions that arise are: Would this process meet the fate of its predecessors? Would the contentious issue of Kashmir be addressed? Would the Congress government now well past its 100 days, continue with the process started by the BJP or take new initiatives? Has the recent rapprochement actually affected change in the rigid mindsets or is it a mere situational euphoria? What role can civil society play in the promotion and sustainability of the process?
The answer to the first question could be pessimistic, for it has been nearly ten months and the dialogue process has failed to deliver. Nevertheless, if one is to consider the genuine and sincere effort taken by both sides, then the future looks promising. The process has moved beyond the initial stage; the second phase should yield some results, even if at minor level, on less contentious issues.
On Kashmir, the recent visit of Pakistani journalists is a positive development and it is important that the Valley be made accessible to all, including Pakistanis; and other lines of communication be opened. However, the only viable solution to the core question would be possible if the aspirations and will of the Kashmiri people is given precedence over all other issues - for the lives and livelihood of the Kashmiris have been lost in this protracted conflict.
The Congress government now has had sufficient time in office to understand and modify the dialogue process according to its own policy options. The initial apprehension that the entire process would fail and also that the Congress government would like to give the process an entirely different perspective in order to have its own signature impact , were also dispelled. Although the initial meetings were rescheduled, the process as such remains intact, which again is a positive sign that this would prove better than any of the previous initiatives.
Lastly, the role of civil society and an increased people-to-people contact is important. The latter has been actively working to break down the barriers; there is a need for openness and dialogue at these levels. Lack of such interaction had developed strong misconceptions about each other; extremist elements on both sides fed on public hostility to their advantage. The best example can be seen from the names given to the various missile programs of both countries.
If the current initiative is not taken seriously, there might not be another opportunity available to the people for a long time to come. This would lead to a lot of negative sentiment, furthering extremist politics and increasing bitterness and animosity. All this would adversely affect the overall socio-economic and political well being of the country and would further embroil the two in a deadly strategic and conventional arms race, which would end up draining their resources entirely. Making statements at a 15-minute interval before the national media should not be taken as dialogue but a mere PR campaign. The SAARC summit in January proved to be an excellent icebreaker and the two sides lost no time in capitalizing on the opportunity provided.
Collectively, these developments herald a turnaround in the bilateral relationship. At the same time, a spectacular act of terrorism could easily derail the present entente. Old mindsets and vested interests in both countries that have no stakes in normalising India-Pakistan relations persist; they have much to lose in the peace process. The contrary factors must also be noticed that includes the public mood that craves for peace and stability in the subcontinent; the steady pressure of the United States and the international community; and the realisation in both countries that they are occupying the neither end of the Human Development Index and the upper end of Transparency International's Corruption Index. Above all, the Kargil conflict and the border confrontation crisis have made it clear that an armed conflict is no longer an option.
The history of bilateral CBMs is not encouraging. If instead a genuine and sustained effort is undertaken it may not be an entirely idealistic notion that South Asian peace initiative may prove to be a model for conflict resolution for other regions to emulate.