20 May 2004
The Times of India
Indo-Pak Balle Balle? Over To Singh Now
TIMES NEWS NETWORK
Prime Minister-designate Manmohan Singh’s promise — made at his first press conference Thursday — to make friction with Pakistan a thing of the past will be put to the test almost immediately with the composite dialogue process with Islamabad set to begin within weeks.
At the preparatory meeting of officials in Islamabad on February 18, the two sides agreed to a timetable of talks which will see India and Pakistan formally discussing the Kashmir issue and peace and security for the first time since 1998 sometime in “May/June 2004’’. This will be followed by discussions on the six other issues which form part of the composite dialogue.
In fact, the upcoming round will be kicked off even earlier: expert-level talks on nuclear confidence building measures are slated for May 25-26, with the Pakistani delegation arriving in Delhi on Monday.
Among the items on the agenda, according to news reports from Islamabad, is a Pakistani non-paper on a “strategic restraint regime’’ in South Asia.
Statements from the Pakistani side suggest that while they will not accept any attempt by India to “sideline’’ the Kashmir issue while moving rapidly ahead on other issues, they do not expect that a settlement can be reached in a short time.
The bottomline for Islamabad is what foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri told this reporter in Islamabad in February: “If there’s goodwill, a lot can happen but let’s remember its a composite dialogue. Lots of things are interlinked’’. For India, the key will lie in ensuring that by the time the two foreign ministers meet in August to review the status of the dialogue, enough progress has been made on some of the more important issues like
Siachen to keep the process ticking along. This means also that the two governments have to be prepared to start thinking beyond their stated positions on Kashmir. The composite dialogue need not be an unending one but as the main political interface between the two countries, it should not be allowed to collapse.
Dr Singh and his foreign policy team will also no doubt have learned a thing or two from the negative experiences of the Vajpayee government.
The 18 month-long severing of all transportation links did nothing to advance Indian interests and only inconvenienced those who are a natural constituency for peace in the two countries. The spontaneous outpouring of friendship witnessed during the Indo-Pak cricket series suggests that both countries havemuch to gain from people coming and going across the border.
The gradual expansion of people-to-people contact must be made irreversible. How successful Dr Singh will be will also depend in large measure on the support his government gets from the BJP now that it has been relegated to the opposition benches.