Why India and Pakistan Are Backing Down in Kashmir

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Residence of the area and security officials gather at the site of a bomb blast

Last year India and Pakistan almost fought a war over Kashmir. Now they appear set to make peace, with India extending its unilateral cease-fire against separatist groups there, and now Pakistan beginning to withdraw its troops. Why the change?

"These are the most hopeful developments in years, and I think they're occurring because of how close the two sides came to another war last year over Pakistan's Kargil incursion. There seems to be a realization now that both sides will lose badly if there is another war. And of course the fact that both sides now have nuclear weapons creates an added anxiety. There's a better understanding by the leadership in both India and Pakistan that something has to be done to reduce Kashmir's potential to be flash point that ignites conflict between the two. And, of course, the Americans have helped both sides come to this realization."

Looking at the domestic politics of each side, presumably it's a lot harder for Pakistan to calm things down on their side of the Kashmir conflict than it is for India. "Well, yes, in the sense that it may be a lot harder for the government of General Musharraf to rein in the Islamic militant groups who're doing much of the fighting in Kashmir. But in the end, it may be equally difficult for India and Pakistan to step back from the brink in Kashmir, because Kashmir is far more than a territorial dispute; it's intimately linked to the national identity of both sides — with Pakistan's identity as an Islamic state and India's identity as a secular state."

Speaking of India's identity as a secular state, isn't that challenged by Prime Minister Vajpayee's statements in support of a campaign to build a Hindu shrine over the ruins of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, which was destroyed by a mob of Hindu extremists in 1992?

"Yes, but Vajpayee is playing a delicate political game. And that's taking India into another dangerous phase, where the [ruling Bharatiya Janata party] is revealing its hand, trying to exploit Hindu nationalist sentiments around the Ayodhya issue. Some observers believe that he may be doing this as something of a distraction for his supporters, trying to create political space for himself to push through tough economic measures, which he desperately needs to do. The government is basically bankrupt, and India is facing an economic slowdown. We're heading back into a terrible mess, but in a democracy as politically fractured as India's, it's hard to cut government spending. The alternative is privatization — the government owns everything from hotels to car factories, and all they've managed to privatize in recent years was a bakery — but there's strong ideological resistance. That may be tempting Vajpayee to distract people with the Ayodhya issue.

"Another explanation is that his party faces a tough fight next year in the all-important state elections in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state, which is considered a key indicator in national politics. Right now his party may lose its grip on the state, which is where Ayodhya is located. And some believe that he may be trying to energize the BJP's base by reviving the issue. But it's a dangerous game, not least because his coalition allies in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu depend heavily on Muslim support, which Vajpayee's statement will alienate."