India-Pakistan Rapprochement: A Cautious Optimism?

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On Sept. 24, 2004 the new Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York; it was the first meeting of the two leaders. The South Asian media were keen to observe even the tiniest signals. Will the two leaders interact well? Will they establish a good rapport? Would the elusive peace negotiations, initiated in Jan. 2004 by Atal Behari Vajpayee, the former Indian Prime Minister, continue with the new Congress party government? In spite of past failures to resolve Indo-Pakistan conflicts, this time a little more hope was pinned on this first meeting. Indeed, there was some poignancy in the encounter; each leader was born in the other's country. Manmohan Singh was born in Gah, a village in western Punjab, now in Pakistan, and Pervez Musharraf was born in New Delhi, India. The significance of their meeting cannot be underestimated, but was it a turning point?

There is, of course, a pervasive cynicism in South Asia concerning Indo-Pakistan relations, which sees all peace negotiations as doomed enterprises. But we need to examine the context of present negotiations carefully to assess the chance for better outcomes. What factors produced the current rapprochement? Have changes in the international environment (especially the 9/11 attacks) played a transformative role? The mainstream media around the world recently have praised Indian and Pakistani leaders for engaging in dialog and welcomed interventions of U.S. diplomacy to avert escalation of a potentially nuclear conflict.

Should the credit for the peace process be limited to the initiatives of the leaders and these external mediators? I argue here that a great deal of credit should also be given to civil society dialogs. The peace process is sustained by creative energies of citizens, transnational groups, and non-governmental organizations which have helped change public attitudes of Indians towards Pakistan (and vice versa, although I am limiting my analysis to India). These unofficial groups play an indispensable role in promoting initiatives, reducing tensions, and coming up with useful alternatives to calm dangerous situations. Along with a changing public consciousness, we need to understand the reasons and imperatives that influenced leaders to begin bona fide negotiations. Have changes in public opinion decisively affected the calculations leaders make?

I briefly examine the character of Indo-Pakistan relations, focusing on the last six years of BJP rule in India when the ties between the two nations displayed a seesaw pattern: periods of abrupt hostility followed by returns to a more or less amicable footing. Then I examine how civic organizations and transnational networks fostered a favorable climate for negotiations. Finally, I discuss pressures on leaders which steered them to dialog; I also take into account the influence of U.S. and other international actors. I conclude that when we weigh the changed environment, domestically and internationally, and the role of the peace constituency, we can be cautiously optimistic about a negotiated settlement of the ongoing conflict.