Easing India and Pakistan Toward the Table

To help defuse possible nuclear conflict in South Asia, employ subtle persuasion, appreciating the parties' own initiatives

The new foreign policy team in Washington is hardly going to put South Asia at the top of its agenda, but it has already taken note of the possibility for change in that key region. And it understands that a reduction of tensions there is very much in the American interest.

A desire to become creatively involved will be - and should be - strong. It must first be understood, however, that both India and Pakistan have long graduated from Western tutelage. Our record in persuading them to subordinate what they see as their vital interest in nuclear matters does not suggest that we could persuade them on issues of even greater vital interest - their relationship in general and Kashmir in particular.

Resistance to a US role

India has for decades resisted any American role in the Kashmir question, and the current government of Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda has been quite prickly in its political dealings with Washington. Conspicuous US involvement in Indo-Pakistani affairs could drive New Delhi from the negotiating table, and visions of an Indo-Pakistan signing ceremony on the White House lawn should be immediately throttled.

India and Pakistan know well enough that we would like to see them settle their problems. Preaching, pressure, and well-meant mediation offers are unnecessary. Private initiatives may contribute something but only if they are strictly unofficial.

Investors, trading partners, the World Bank, and major aid donors, working together and without fanfare, can usefully reinforce the message that if India and Pakistan want to participate fully in the international community they must deal with the Kashmir dispute, put their hostility aside, and cooperate in leading South Asia to the growth and development that it needs and deserves. It is in this common effort that American energies can most usefully, and discreetly, be directed.

Meanwhile, modest breezes of political change may be blowing in South Asia. Indian Foreign Minister I.K. Gujral has announced a new regional policy by which India is to rely on carrots rather than the customary sticks in dealing with her neighbors. Some important steps have been taken already, especially with Bangladesh. This statesmanlike policy shift is long overdue and deserves more international recognition than it has gotten. May it outlast the shaky regime of Mr. Deve Gowda.

Across the border, Nawaz Sharif has returned to power in the strongest position any Pakistani civilian politician has enjoyed for over two decades. His task is not easy, for he must deal with a desperate economic situation and a failed policy of support for the insurgency in Kashmir. A reduction in the costly and dangerous confrontation with India is imperative, and the new prime minister's rhetoric concerning Kashmir and India has, by Pakistani standards, been extremely mild. His call for talks with India sounds sincere and may show a sober recognition of the realities.

Dialogue on Kashmir

The "Gujral Doctrine" explicitly excludes Pakistan; to have done otherwise would have been unthinkable as long as Islamabad continues its involvement in Kashmir. The Indians must realize, however, that their recent successes in pacifying Kashmir are only first steps. Much more needs to be done, and this will ultimately involve dealing seriously with Pakistan. New Delhi has responded positively to Mr. Sharif's proposals for renewed talks, and meetings at sub-cabinet level and between the foreign ministers are scheduled for the coming weeks. It is particularly encouraging that neither side has set preconditions that would thwart dialogue.

The prospect of progress on the Kashmir issue and a reduction of tensions between India and Pakistan is probably better than it has been for well over a decade. That, regrettably, is not saying very much. Indo-Pakistani enmity is an enormous historical burden. Both sides must keep looking over their shoulders at domestic opposition parties who will cynically exploit the issue.

Beyond that, the Indian government may be too weak to risk any concessions to Pakistan, and, despite his large majority, Sharif must take careful account of the Army's views in his dealings with India. The two sides will need all the good will they can get if they are to rethink their dangerous rivalry and get on with the business of economic development rather than nuclear-tipped hostility.

* Thomas Thornton teaches Asian studies at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities. During the Carter administration he was in charge of South Asian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council.

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