- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

NEW DELHI — Even before seizing power in a 1999 military coup, Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan exercised great influence over India-Pakistan relations.

In May that year, the traditionally hostile neighbors went to war over Kashmir after Pakistan’s army, led then as now by Gen. Musharraf, took control of territory on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LOC) that divides the disputed Himalayan region.

President Clinton intervened to stop the fighting. But the high-altitude conflict quickly vaporized hopes of a turnaround in Indo-Pakistani relations that had been generated by a bilateral summit meeting a few months earlier in Lahore, Pakistan.

Ever since, Gen. Musharraf has been viewed in India as the devil incarnate, an image that was reinforced when he last visited New Delhi four years ago and characterized the Pakistan-backed separatist Muslim insurgency in Kashmir as “a freedom struggle” comparable to the Palestinian intifada.

But listen to what Indians said about the Pakistani leader after he visited the Indian capital April 16 to 18.

“The Pakistan president presents a new face to India — charming, affable and flexible,” enthused the weekly India Today.

“A consummate politician in a general’s uniform,” a senior Indian policy-maker told the Hindu daily.

His “tie, suit, shirt, shoes are not just perfectly matched, but the stitching is exquisite,” exulted editor Vinod Mehta in Outlook magazine.

And then the ultimate accolade: After a one-on-one meeting with Gen. Musharraf, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh observed: “He was frank, forthright and forward looking. We have a leader we can do business with.”

So what has changed?

Gen. Musharraf’s impromptu New Delhi trip, ostensibly to watch the final match in a monthlong India-Pakistan cricket series, came shortly after a path-breaking event in Kashmir — the start of a bus service linking the divided halves of the state. For the first time in over half a century, ordinary Kashmiris can cross the LOC to meet relatives and friends, and revisit childhood haunts.

What Gen. Musharraf did during his weekend sojourn in New Delhi was to make clear that despite opposition back home, he fully backs the opening up of the LOC.

Indeed, in a joint statement with Mr. Singh at the end of his visit, the Pakistani leader “also agreed to pursue further measures to enhance interaction and cooperation across the LOC, including agreed meeting points for divided families, trade, pilgrimages and cultural interaction.”

“The peace process is now irreversible,” the two leaders affirmed.

It may be too early though to pop the champagne cork, though.

India has made it amply clear that it would not agree to a redrawing of maps in Kashmir. Pakistan, on the other hand, steadfastly refuses to accept the LOC as an international border.

What both sides have now clearly agreed upon, though, is to try and convert the LOC into a “soft border,” hoping that greater interaction between the two halves could yield a solution.

Islamabad nurtures the hope that, eventually, the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority areas of the state would opt for merger with Islamic Pakistan. The worst-case scenario acceptable to New Delhi, on the other hand, would be for the entire region to become autonomous under the joint sovereignty of India and Pakistan.

It’s the uncertainty over where the Kashmir bus would take the two contending sides that has provoked even liberal Pakistani commentators to accuse Gen. Musharraf of abandoning the Kashmir cause. Comparing his joint statement in New Delhi to pre-World War II British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler in Munich, newspaper columnist Ayaz Amir complained that “for no rhyme or reason — or at least none comprehensible to mortal man — he [Gen. Musharraf] has just done a mini-Munich in Delhi, effectively agreeing to the Indian position on key issues and getting only bland words and good intentions in return.

“Capitulation of this kind should at the very least bring some color of shame to Pakistani cheeks,” said the influential columnist.

Mr. Singh can do no better than heed the Pakistani reaction, diametrically opposed as it is to the celebratory mood in India. If his newfound “chemistry” with Gen. Musharraf is not to disappear in a wisp of smoke, Mr. Singh needs to now make a significant gesture toward Pakistan over Kashmir.

The obvious option for New Delhi is to declare a unilateral cease-fire in its war against Kashmiri insurgents. It has been done in the past, but failed to get anywhere thanks to opposition by the main Kashmiri insurgent leader, Syed Salahuddin.

But obviously under pressure from Islamabad, the Pakistan-based Mr. Salahuddin has not only not opposed the bus service, but has even offered to talk to New Delhi.

It is an opportunity Mr. Singh should grasp with both hands.

New Delhi may prefer to wait, though, for the snow to melt from Kashmir’s Himalayan passes. It is only then that it will be clear if Gen. Musharraf has kept his promise to stop insurgents from infiltrating to the Indian side.

But, shortly before he left New Delhi, the Pakistani president made it apparent that he was India’s best hope for peace in Kashmir.

“Right now, we have a very good relationship with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but nobody is permanent in this world,” he said at a breakfast meeting with editors. “Unless we resolve the core issue, it can erupt again in a different time frame and under a different leadership.”

The message was clear: The once belligerent Pakistani general has recast himself as the linchpin who alone may be able to guarantee peace between South Asia’s feuding, nuclear-armed neighbors.

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