Now for real results in South Asia

Indian prime minister's first visit in a decade to neighbor Pakistanyields promise of improved talks.

In South Asia's most surprising peace summit in more than a decade, a quick and relatively unnoticed stop by India's prime minister at an Eiffel Tower-styled monument in Lahore, Pakistan may have been its most significant moment.

Informal comments Feb. 21 at the Minar-i-Pakistan by Atal Behari Vajpayee contained a punch: Mr. Vajpayee, the leader of a hard-line Hindu nationalist government, essentially recognized the right of Pakistan to exist, right on the spot where in 1940 the young Muslim League of Pakistan first declared independence from India.

In the diplomatic world of South Asia, the step was not unlike Israeli and Palestinian leaders finally recognizing each other's international legitimacy. Many hard-liners in India have long believed that India should not exist in a two-state solution, and the prime minister's statements bear weight because of his party's positions.

Vajpayee's highly theatrical and symbolic bus ride across the Pakistani border - where thousands died in fighting 52 years ago when India was divided - did lead to an agreement to talk about the most sensitive issues between India and Pakistan, including the vexing problem of Kashmir.

Also included was general language promising to reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear war between the often bitter sibling neighbors, who both openly tested nuclear weapons for the first time last spring.

Yet whether the Lahore Declaration, as it is called, represents a change of heart by the leaders of either side, or whether it will result in any practical steps, is unclear.

Some feel the Lahore bid was little more than a savvy public relations show. Set up by the relatively weak heads of two cash-poor states, the meetings might have been leverage to coax officials in Washington and other Western capitals to lift sanctions and unblock millions of dollars in aid languishing in the pipelines of institutions like the World Bank since the nuclear tests, seasoned observers say.

Indeed, little noticed amid the euphoria leading up to the Lahore bus trip was a quiet vote by the World Bank to unblock some $210 million of a $1.7 billion loan to the Indian state of Andra Pradesh - a vote that the United States for the first time since the tests did not oppose.

THE summit, only the third since 1947, emerged it seemed almost by happenstance. India and Pakistan were establishing bus service between Delhi and Lahore for the first time since 1947, as part of a series of small confidence-building measures. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif suggested in an interview with an Indian newspaper that Vajpayee himself take the inaugural run. Vajpayee quickly accepted and the colorful event was planned and organized in less than a fortnight.

The move surprised US diplomats who have watched eight rounds of talks between President Clinton's special envoy Strobe Talbott and the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan yield little substantive progress.

"Quite suddenly, after months of utterly sterile dialogue, and nothing on Kashmir ... there seems to be a lot of political steam on both sides of the border," says Teresita Schaeffer, former US ambassador to Sri Lanka and a longtime State Department South Asia expert. "The real question is whether anything really substantial will happen, or whether we are watching good theater."

Pakistani and Indian officials argue that - at a time when both sides have tested nuclear weapons, and both sides have an increase in internal hard-line fundamentalist or nationalist groups - the good-vibes atmosphere that emerged from Lahore is itself part of the substance of better relations. A sober reminder of the dark side of relations arose shortly before the summit - when 20 civilian Hindus in Kashmir were massacred by Muslim militant forces.

"The bus ride may be largely symbolic and atmospheric, OK," argues a top Indian foreign ministry official. "But in this region of the world, symbols and atmospheres are very important, especially right now."

The sunny headlines and epoch-intoning commentary surrounding the pictures of a beaming Vajpayee and Mr. Sharif also give the two leaders a needed boost.

Vajpayee is a moderate in a weak coalition ruling party that has been riven by hard-liners. In what has long been a secular state, their demands for a more radical Hindu nationalist agenda include implementation of school curricula teaching the primacy of Hindu faith, and an economic program that disallows serious foreign investment and trade in favor of local Indian enterprises.

Also, since the election of the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party last February, extremists have stepped up attacks on the 2 percent Christian minority in India. Vajpayee's presence in Lahore, and his indirect recognition of Pakistan, shows a more moderate image of India, and may be a rebuke to extremists.

Sharif, by contrast, has taken firm steps to consolidate power unto himself. He masterminded the departure of the federal president, the Supreme Court chief judge, and the head of the Army. Despite these moves, however, Sharif is widely viewed as constantly on fragile political footing - and needing to appear strong both at home and abroad.

"I'm suspicious of a change of heart by these two leaders," says the senior member of a Delhi think tank. "I think they are trying to gain advantage while not conceding anything. But I'm hopeful that, having committed themselves, the process of reconciliation will prove to be larger than anything they thought they could control."

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