Aijaz Zaka Syed argues that the Indian elections are a turning point for the nation's longsuffering Muslims
Islamabad was among the first governments to congratulate the Congress Party for its victory in the Indian elections. "Pakistan remains committed to peace and prosperity in South Asia and would continue to work with India to resolve all outstanding issues between the two countries peacefully and in a just manner," said President Asif Zardari in a letter to Congress Chairperson Sonia Gandhi.
Pakistani Prime Minister Youssef Raza Gilani applauded his counterpart Manmohan Singh on "reassuming" office. He too reiterated Pakistan's "commitment to resolve peacefully all outstanding issues between the two countries so as to usher in an era of peace, progress and prosperity for the people of the subcontinent."
The fulsomeness is surprising. Not only is Pakistan engaged in a war with the Taliban to regain control of the Swat Valley in the northwest of the country. Ever since the Pakistani jihadi group Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked Mumbai last November, it has also been locked in a cold war with India. The perceived dangers of the two fronts can be seen in their troop allotments. There are around 150,000 Pakistani soldiers battling the Taliban in Swat and elsewhere on the frontier with Afghanistan. There are 250,000 soldiers on the eastern border facing India.
Islamabad feared the heat generated by India's election campaign might force the chill into open hostilities. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried hard to play the sectarian card. It accused Congress of being "soft" on Pakistan and Muslims generally, vowing retaliation for Mumbai and repression to crush the Pakistan-backed separatist insurgency in Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan territory claimed by both countries.
Congress, by and large, counselled restraint. And the masses voted for it in droves. For many observers this confirmed that no matter how cleaved India is by ethnic and religious divides the temperament of its people remains essentially secular. It also appears to confirm that most Indians, like most Pakistanis, prefer peace to war with their neighbour. You could almost hear the relief in Zardari and Gilani's missives.
This is not to say all is rosy between South Asia's two nuclear tipped states. The five-year- old peace process lies dormant, and won't be revived until Islamabad takes action against Lashkar and any other Pakistanis that attack India, says India's new Foreign Minister SM Krishna. "We stand ready to extend a hand of partnership to Pakistan if they take determined and credible action to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism operating from their territory." It's a sentiment echoed by Singh.
Pakistan has arrested six Lashkar commanders for involvement in Mumbai and banned its civilian wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, after the United Nations did so. But it's done little else. The Jamaat is simply working under another name, mobilising an array of welfare services to tend those displaced by the fighting in Swat. India has accused Pakistan of playing a double game.
Still, there are signs of a thaw. A recent report in The Wall Street Journal says, despite the formal freeze between India and Pakistan, there has been cooperation between their intelligence agencies over Lashkar and Mumbai. On 20 May Delhi handed over a dossier of evidence on the attack that Islamabad says it needs to prosecute those arrested.
Even more significant are signs that Pakistan and India are beginning to move from an adversarial regional relationship to one based on cooperation. On 6 May Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a memorandum to begin talks to establish a trade transit agreement by 2010. The main beneficiary of the agreement will be India, since it has a far higher volume of trade with Kabul than does Pakistan. Pakistan's imprimatur is an economic concession to a state it has long viewed as a rival in Afghanistan.
Similarly on 24 May Pakistan and Iran took another step towards agreeing a pipeline that will supply Iranian gas to an energy-starved land. Both Tehran and Islamabad want India to be the final destination for the pipeline. If that happens, it would bind together three countries that have historically been at war in and for Afghanistan.
Above all, there is an increasing recognition that any comprehensive regional settlement in Afghanistan depends on peace between Pakistan and India and some kind of resolution of Kashmir. And that Kashmir can be resolved. Even at the height of tensions over Mumbai former Pakistani ministers said back-channel negotiations on a Kashmir agreement had been near to conclusion, and were backed by the Pakistan army and most of the separatist Kashmiri leadership. Singh said much the same during the elections.
Kashmir remains the key. One of the reasons the Pakistan army maintains ties with the Afghan Taliban and groups like Lashkar is because it fears "encirclement" by a hostile India to the east and a hostile, pro-India Afghanistan to the west. A deal on Kashmir -- and the recognition of the border it would mean -- would massively reduce that threat perception. It would allow the Pakistan army to move troops from the "external threat" of India to tackle the "internal threat" of the Taliban.
But this would require Pakistan first acting with the same decisiveness against anti-Indian groups like Lashkar as it is now doing against the Pakistan Taliban in Swat. "Much will depend on Pakistan's initiative on Mumbai to revive the talks [on Kashmir]," says veteran Indian analyst, Javed Naqvi.