Troubles at Home Stifle Rapprochement


THE upturn in relations between India and Pakistan is stuck in the growing political woes of their two youthful leaders. Just last December, India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Pakistan's newly elected leader, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, met for the first time in this Pakistani capital.

Their personal rapport and the agreements that came out of that subcontinent summit seemed to signal warmer ties between the two long-standing rivals.

Less than a year later, there's only tentative progress to show as Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Gandhi, both heirs to great political dynasties, appear to be under siege in their own capitals. In the highly charged political atmosphere, closer Indo-Pakistani ties - never popular in either nation - have been shunted to the background.

``Indo-Pak relations are hostage to the domestic troubles of both leaders,'' says Mushahid Hussain, a Pakistani political commentator.

In India, where Gandhi faces a tough reelection fight within the next four months, his difficulties mount (see story above).

In the last two months, a resurging wave of ethnic and communal violence has swept northern and central India. Most troubling is the deteriorating standoff in Jammu and Kashmir, a perennially sensitive border state and long-standing flashpoint with Pakistan.

There, militant Muslims have sustained a year-long campaign of violence that is becoming increasingly separatist and pro-Pakistani. Since the two countries were carved out of British India more than 40 years ago, both have laid claim to the strategic northern area.

In Pakistan, Bhutto still struggles for control against an aggressive opposition, the powerful bureaucracy, and an ever-watchful military. Increasingly, she is criticized for picking unnecessary fights with the formidable President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and opposition politicians, who have gained stature from the confrontations.

On no issue has she been more vulnerable than her efforts to cement a friendlier era with India, which has fought Pakistan in three wars.

``She has appeared to cozy up to Rajiv and to try to appease India,'' says Ayaz Amir, a columnist in Islamabad. ``That cozy, cozy manner with Rajiv could prove politically fatal.''

A major turning point came this summer when India backed off from an agreement to disengage troops from the Siachen Glacier on northernmost border. Since 1984, the two armies have fought a costly, and until recently, unreported war.

India, which sees Siachen as part of the larger issue of Jammu and Kashmir, could not be seen as backing down during an election year. Gandhi's reelection rides on support in north and central India, the so-called Hindi belt, where Hindu fundamentalism and anti-Pakistani feeling is strong.

``Kashmir is no issue,'' Gandhi said later. ``Kashmir is ours and there is no question about it.''

The failed accord, which had been tentatively agreed to by the two foreign secretaries, disappointed Pakistan. ``We thought that if we could get this [the Siachen problem] out of the way, we could make progress on other issues. But now we're stuck.''

The failure hurt Bhutto. She came under attack from her main nemesis, Punjab Chief Minister Nawaz Sharif, who accused her of making Pakistan a client state of India.

Defensively, Bhutto made a well-publicized visit to Siachen, put off a planned visit to India, and in an interview contended that her government ``is safeguarding each and every inch of the country.''

``India didn't give anything to Benazir on Siachen, weakening her position,'' says a Western diplomat in Pakistan. ``Her approach to Indo-Pak relations has become the opposition's main stick with which to beat her.''

In the meantime, India has criticized Nusrat Bhutto, Bhutto's mother, for raising the Kashmir issue in the United Nations. While Pakistan plans to go ahead in December with military maneuvers along the border.

Analysts say relations between India and Pakistan could improve if political tensions subside. Much depends on the outcome of India's parliamentary elections and Bhutto's ability to survive politically.

The political pace is quickening in both countries. Emboldened by growing corruption suspicions and concerns over rising inflation, Gandhi's opposition is struggling to present a united front. In Pakistan, Bhutto and her opponents are holding a series of competing political rallies, raising speculation of a coming poll.

``The reserve of good will is still there on both sides,'' says Bhabani Sen Gupta, a New Delhi political analyst. ``Both countries are waiting for an opportunity to go a step further once the political temperature is lowered.''

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