The Road That Must Be Taken

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South Asia works only as well as India and Pakistan permit it to. Last year, with a million troops mobilized along a volatile border and the prospect of a war going nuclear, the talk-heavy, accomplishment-light seven-nation South Asian Area Regional Conference (SAARC) was even less useful than ever. Last week, SAARC was hauled back from the morgue, when the seven countries signed a pact to make South Asia a free-trade zone by 2006. The reason for the success: India and Pakistan were on board. More proof of something big in the air came a day later, when the two rivals announced that they would resume a "composite dialogue"—a code signifying that they would even discuss Kashmir, the territory that has kept the subcontinent bristling with arms and animus for more than five decades.

When peace threatens to break out between India and Pakistan, grown men wince—for they have not seen anything like this in their lives. Pakistan launched modern history's longest war in October 1947, when it inspired a jihad to "liberate" Kashmir from its Hindu ruler. The first cease-fire was announced way back in January 1949; the most recent along the world's most dangerous dividing line was called by Pakistan last November.

But then things started to happen. In December, two attempts were made on the life of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf; the attack on Christmas Day was so close that God must have been on the side of the general. Pakistan's government blamed Kashmir militants once supported by Musharraf, now aggrieved by his neglect. Eleven days later the SAARC meeting began in Islamabad, and the initial signals were tentative at best. When Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee arrived, his Pakistani counterpart, Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, tried to greet him with a hug. Vajpayee smiled cordially but took a step back. When Vajpayee departed three days later, the hug between the two men was warm and reciprocal.

Musharraf declared that credit for the rapprochement went to Vajpayee's "vision, commitment and flexibility"—and it's been a very long time since a Pakistani leader has praised an Indian Prime Minister so sincerely. Simultaneously, Pakistan gave a written commitment that it would "not permit any territory under [its] control to be used to support terrorism in any manner," the most definitive response to India's constant drum thump on that issue—and, presumably, a reaction to the attempts on Musharraf's life.

What kind of alchemy did Vajpayee work? He placed rational economic cooperation in a multicultural, multinational region against the debilitating cycle of violence, terrorism and repression, and asked people to find the better way forward. He upped the ante and spoke of open borders, a single currency and an economic union. He challenged the region to think that if Europe and ASEAN could do it, why not South Asia? For a man schooled in war, Musharraf proved to be surprisingly agile in peace. He matched Vajpayee step by step, measure for measure, lending muscle to vision.

Indo-Pak relations are always vulnerable to somersaults of hope and reality, but there are two reasons for optimism. First, the age of economics has finally reached South Asia. There is a perceptible demand for a better life and the rewards of a peace dividend. Pakistan, in particular, senses that while India is beginning to enter the comfort zone of high growth, its own people might be left out. The cost of confrontation has exceeded tolerance levels.

Second, the end of American ambiguity toward terrorism is beginning to work. Its allies in the war against terror, including Musharraf, cannot sustain a policy of equivocation. Pakistan-based organizations such as Jaish-e-Mohammad or Lashkar-e-Toiba, dedicated to keeping the Kashmir fire burning, find their profile has changed: instead of heroes, they have become the hunted. It is not only India that wants them now, but also their own government.

India and Pakistan must rise above the rigidity of past demands (like the big nonstarter—a Kashmir plebiscite) and look for an option that is honorable, acceptable and sustainable. It must satisfy the Kashmiri need for honor; it must be acceptable to New Delhi; and unless Pakistan signs on, no agreement can be sustained. If they can achieve all that, the next war between India and Pakistan will be fought in March and April, a war guaranteed to drive millions of people delirious: the upcoming cricket Test matches. That's the only kind of war we want.