Earlier this week, the leaders of India and Pakistan dramatically announced their intention to renew peace negotiations in February; among the topics for discussion will be the long-standing dispute over Kashmir. Since this would be the first Indo-Pakistani peace parley in two years, the news attracted major international attention as well as enthusiastic commentary from the local press. Colin Powell, who has made several visits to the region as part of U.S. efforts to foster peace, echoed other world leaders in calling the announcement “historic.” Regional commentators, used to seeing the two nations sparring instead of speaking, spent more time second-guessing motivations than predicting results.
Hanging over the new thaw in South Asian relations is the dual threat of nuclear war and terrorist instability in Pakistan. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the state’s quasi-democratic leader, narrowly escaped two assassination attempts in December; as the Hindustan Times reported, some American commentators have suggested the attacks pushed the president toward reconciliation. On the other hand, a Times of India editorial noted that “Musharraf is under enormous pressure—as much from the jehadis as from Washington—and a single wrong step could mean things going pear-shaped.”
The Hindu, which described the peace initiative as the two states’ “onerous responsibility to address their differences,” nevertheless argued that the failed assassinations are “dramatic confirmation” that Musharraf really is cracking down on Islamic extremists. The Hindu also noted the importance of some subtle wording in the bilateral announcement, which says peace talks will “commence” and not “resume.” The paper suggested this implies that India and Pakistan are turning over a new leaf. Past negotiations between the fractious neighbors have traditionally gone sour as one side or the other loses its resolve for peace.
An editorial in Pakistan’s Daily Times echoed the positive sentiment with the headline, “The Indo-Pak Peace Process is Different This Time.” In a detailed analysis, the Times suggested that the negotiating breakthrough may have occurred because Pakistan hinted that “bilateral talks could go beyond the baseline of UN Security Council resolutions” that has framed the Kashmir debate for more than 50 years. The ruling Indian nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party “actually feels that the voting population in India wants the quarrel with Pakistan settled so that India can exploit the ‘feel good’ factor and get on with life.”
Commentators on both sides agreed that the “feel good” factor may be the prime driving force behind the new peace process. The Daily Times argued that Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee’s “Kabuki-like performance” in bringing Indians to the negotiating table will pay rupee dividends. The talks were announced at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit, and it’s clear that both sides would welcome reduced defense budgets and the other financial benefits of peace. An idealistic Times of India editorial highlighted the similarities between SAARC and the European Union and noted that for centuries “Europeans had devoted themselves largely to the killing of other Europeans.” Similarly, the ToI argued, economic ties will eventually turn Kashmir into the new Brussels, a federal capital owned by all and shared by all.