Wednesday, Dec 03, 2003
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THE AGREEMENT BETWEEN India and Pakistan to revive direct air links and overflights from January 1 on a reciprocal basis is significant not only for the effect it will have on the process of normalisation of relations but also for the manner in which it was accomplished. The accord on air travel has set the tone for purposeful discussions on restarting the Samjhauta Express and generated some momentum behind proposals for a ferry service between Mumbai and Karachi and a rail or road link between Sindh and Rajasthan. New Delhi also appears ready to respond positively to Islamabad's proposals for an increase in the capacities on its flights to New Delhi and Mumbai and for adding new destinations. While the substantive follow-up to the air accord will occur only over time, it was significant that the two countries displayed a rare willingness to resolve swiftly a dispute that had appeared intractable till the eve of the talks. For more than a year, Pakistan had quite unreasonably been insisting on an Indian guarantee that it would not unilaterally suspend overflight facilities. India could not surrender its sovereign rights over airspace but it was in no position to force Pakistan to open its skies either. In these circumstances, it appeared that the second round of talks on Monday would suffer the same fate as the unsuccessful negotiations held in August. However, the meeting turned out to be cordial once Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf had made the surprising but welcome decision to drop that condition.
Pakistan's abrupt turnaround can be interpreted in three ways. A cynical view would be that Pakistan has little to lose and much to gain by adopting a pro-peace posture at the current juncture. Its decision on air links and overflights came mere days after its unilateral offer of a ceasefire along the Line of Control and after it indicated a willingness to explore the feasibility of a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. These positive signals were made at a time of the year when Pakistan's ability to assist militants in Kashmir is restricted because of adverse weather conditions. The Pakistan Government stands to win the approbation of the international community even if it declines to take pro-active measures against militant groups. A Vajpayee Government that will be readying for elections next summer will not be in a position to offer concessions in this period. These circumstances would enable Islamabad to reinvigorate the militancy after the Himalayan snow melts even as it attributes any future deterioration in the situation to Indian obduracy. The second assessment, which cannot be ruled out, is that Pakistan has finally concluded it can no longer afford the costs of constant confrontation with India. General Musharraf's call for joint ventures between entrepreneurs of the two countries could indicate a genuine change in attitude. Thirdly, Pakistan might have taken on board the advice from friendly countries that its entrenched animosity towards India is not in its interest.
Whatever the driving force, the developments augur well for the SAARC summit in Islamabad next month. Pakistan, which has vested much prestige in this event, hopes that the measures it has taken will make for more than a problem-free summit. Its leaders have repeatedly expressed the hope that recent developments will induce Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to initiate talks on substantive issues when he meets them on the sidelines of the summit. Their hopes might not be fulfilled. However, India must do its bit to broad-base the relationship with Pakistan since it has always recognised that the establishment of mutual confidence and trust will create the conditions in which the contentious issues can be addressed.
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