A new phase in India’s relations with Pakistan may be about to begin. The announcement of the Indian prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in Parliament that a high commissioner would return to Islamabad and that civil aviation links would be restored with Pakistan, on a reciprocal basis, clearly signals a thaw in bilateral relations. While it is too early to conclude that India-Pakistan relations have turned the corner, there exists now the serious possibility of the resumption of a dialogue within the next few weeks. The latest announcement follows two other important markers. During the course of a public rally in Srinagar on April 18, Mr Vajpayee “offered a hand of friendship” to Pakistan. The prime minister had, however, later clarified that he was prepared to send a senior official of the ministry of external affairs to Islamabad to work out the agenda for the talks, once Pakistan stopped infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir and closed down the training camps for terrorists which exist on its soil. Subsequently, on April 28, the Pakistani prime minister, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, called up Mr Vajpayee, invited him to visit Pakistan, and apparently condemned terrorism in the strongest possible terms, paving the way for the defreezing of ties.
The reasons behind the prime minister’s latest initiative are far from clear. Several factors, however, must have played a role. For some time now, it has been obvious that Mr Vajpayee, despite past setbacks and resistance from within his party, remains personally committed to creating the conditions for stable peace in the Indian sub-continent. It could well be that the present effort is also linked directly to Mr Vajpayee’s vision of going down in history as the statesman who helped to create peace in south Asia. Indeed, during his speech in Parliament, Mr Vajpayee emphatically stated that “he was in the dock” before his party colleagues, but he was still making a final attempt at building peace with Pakistan.
But there has also been a rethink within the larger Indian strategic and policy community over the continuing failure of India’s Pakistan policy. Neither international pressure nor India’s coercive diplomacy has made Pakistan give up using violence as an essential element of its policy on Kashmir. Under the circumstances, while the prospect for a dialogue leading to a breakthrough may still appear bleak, it is increasingly being recognized that the process of engagement with Islamabad will help to lessen tensions and perhaps even contribute to decreasing violence in Kashmir. Finally, of course, it has to be admitted that there is growing pressure from the international community, especially the United States of America, on both New Delhi and Islamabad to resume a dialogue at the earliest opportunity. Indeed, the latest Indian initiative has been announced before the visit of Mr Richard Armitage, the US deputy secretary of state. Unlike in the past, the prime minister’s initiative is prudently based on small incremental steps rather than grand summits. It has finally been recognized that peace in south Asia can only be achieved piece by piece.