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By Dileep Padgaonkar

Dileep Padgaonkar is the former editor of the Times of India.

-- After the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament on Dec. 13, it would be naive in the extreme to even hint at the prospects of peace between India and Pakistan.

The climate of suspicion, acrimony and bitterness ominously recalls the one that prevailed in the months preceding the liberation of Bangladesh. New Delhi continues to step up its pressures on Islamabad to abandon its jehadi ambitions in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

It has left no one in doubt that should the diplomatic moves it has made thus far, and the moves it intends to make in the days ahead, fail to persuade Gen. Pervez Musharraf to put an end to the terrorist activity directed at this country from Pakistan, it is prepared to exercise other, more drastic options and to cope with their consequences.

However, despite these indications of India's resolve, there are reasons to believe that the worst can still be avoided. One of them relates to the Bush administration's efforts behind the scenes to prod the general to address New Delhi's concerns with the requisite amount of seriousness.

The latest expression of such efforts is Washington's announcement that the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are "foreign terrorist organizations.''
Islamabad has promptly denounced them as illegal outfits. It can no longer maintain the fiction that their members are freedom fighters. New Delhi may continue to claim that these are "cosmetic steps,' but it cannot mock America's efforts anymore. This could put at risk the increasingly warm relations that it has forged with the United States.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee will doubtless make more martial noises to keep the hard-liner constituency within his fold in reasonably good humor, not least in view of the forthcoming legislative elections, especially in Uttar Pradesh.
Even so, the pragmatist in him is unlikely to ignore America's plea that India should heed the constraints and compulsions of Gen. Musharraf. His future is at stake, and he cannot be seen to be doing things at the behest of India.

Another reason that might nudge Vajpayee to "hasten slowly'' is the growing clamor within Pakistan for jettisoning Islamabad's disastrous Kashmir policy, particularly in the wake of the loss of its "strategic depth'' in Afghanistan. Given the place that the Kashmir "cause'' occupies in the furtherance of the "Pakistan ideology,'' Musharraf cannot possibly be expected to make a U-turn on this issue as he did in the case of the Taliban.

All the same -- and this, too, is a factor that Vajpayee cannot ignore -- Musharraf is in no position to reach the domestic goals he has set for himself without a painful but necessary revision of his Kashmir policy.

Indeed, time and again he has let it be known that Pakistan will go down the tubes unless he keeps the religious extremists on a tight leash, takes control of the activities of the madrassas, defangs the jehadi groups, neutralizes their mentors in his own establishment and de-weaponizes Pakistani society.

The actions he has taken in this regard may be hesitant, timid and not altogether convincing. But for New Delhi to dismiss them out of hand would be tantamount to self-deception.
After the terrorist attacks in Srinagar and on parliament, the Vajpayee government has every reason not to repose much trust in Musharraf.

Moreover, Kashmir is not the only issue that bedevils relations between India and Pakistan. The distrust of India runs deep in that country, as a look at its history textbooks will tell.

Even so, India will have to deal with the general if only because he is still in command and because anyone who replaces him could be a far more irksome customer. The general must therefore be given every encouragement to put his house in order. The last option -- war -- is bound to destabilize his regime, perhaps threaten the very integrity of Pakistan (with horrific consequences for the region) and debilitate India as well. Only a cynic beyond repair can entertain these dreaded consequences.

Vajpayee can be counted upon to shun the cynics to realize one of the ambitions he has nursed since assuming office: to lay the ground for lasting peace between the estranged neighbors.

Paradoxically enough, Musharraf could turn out to be a viable partner in this historic endeavor. So, gentlemen, seize the day.

(c) 2002, Dileep Padgaonkar/Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services
For immediate release (Distributed 1/3/02)