Normalization talks between India and Pakistan have ended in a mutual huff. India took umbrage at dinner remarks by visiting Pakistan Foreign Minister Agha Shahi. Pakistan, in turn, blamed the Indian government for "negative" and "distorted" Indian press reporting on the progress of the talks.
The war of words, focusing on unfriendly comments in each other's national media, has obscured the broad agreement the two old antagonists have reached on the need for -- if not the route to -- a political settlement of the Afghan crisis.
At the same time, it has highlighted the deep distrust that plagues relations between the two countries who have warred against one another three times in the last 33 years.
It indicated that despite their diplomatic protestations of goodwill and slow progress toward better bilateral relations, neither side can resist throwing brickbats when touchy issues such as military arms, great power friendships, and their old territorial dispute over the state of Kashmir are concerned.
From the Indian perspective, the first shot in the media war was fired by Pakistan shortly before Mr. Shahi's arrival in the Indian capital Tuesday. A spate of editorials in the government-censored Pakistani press alleged that India, which recently signed a $1.6 billion arms deal with the Soviet Union, was touching off an arms race.
Antennae at India's Ministry of External Affairs quivered even faster when a senior Pakistani official, talking to foreign correspondents here, criticized India's "obsession" with blocking arms aid or sales to Pakistani in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On the day of Mr. Shahi's arrival, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi complained to him about the "adverse publicity about India and its defense policies" -- remarks duly related to the press by the Indian Foreign Ministry's official spokesman.
At a dinner hosted by Indian Foreign Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao Tuesday night, Mr. Shahi touched in his speech on hopes for a peaceful settlement of the two countries' longstanding dispute over the northern territory of Kashmir, suggested a bilateral agreement on their ratio of arms and men in uniform, and noted that India's large weaponry acquisitions caused apprehensions among its neighbors.
His remarks incensed the Indian Foreign Ministry and set it on its own media offensive. At a special press briefing Wednesday limited to Indian reporters, ministry spokesman J. N. Dixit hit Mr. Shahi's remarks as regrettable, unsuitable for a public forum, and presumptuous in speaking on behalf of India's neighbors.
Thursday morning, readers of most national dailies woke up to gloomy headlines and articles focused on Pakistani balkiness. The Indian press, uncensored and often freewheeling, reported Dixit's remarks in stenographic detail.
Diplomatic observers settled back in anticipation of another found in the war of words from Islamabad. Both India and Pakistan denied a setback in their attempts to normalize relations. Asked whether they had moved closer, an Indian spokesman called the countries' "willingness to continue contacts with each other a positive factor."