Peace and war

One year ago, the progress of a bus entering Pakistan from India was keenly followed by over a billion people across South Asia and closely monitored the world over. The bus carried Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to Lahore, where he was warmly received by the most powerful prime minister in Pakistan's history. Vajpayee remained in the country's cultural capital for a couple of days and, together with Nawaz Sharif, expressed the desire to end the 50-year animosity between the two countries. The poet in Vajpayee couldn't resist from reciting Hum jang na honay dengay (We won't allow a war anymore) at the Lahore Fort, built at a time when India and Pakistan were one.

The neighbours had never been closer as potential friends. Now, a year on from those fateful few days in February 1999, the two have never been closer to their fourth all-out war — and this time it could be a nuclear one. Within a single year, India and Pakistan played out their entire chequered history of half a century, giving the world both a glimpse of a promising future for a fifth of humankind as well as the threat of a horrendous mass-end.

What did not happen in the course of one year? From signing a peace treaty to domestic political upheavals that saw both Vajpayee and Sharif being unseated; from fighting a near-war in the icy mountains of Kashmir to tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats; and from familiar border clashes to missile testing and the hurling of threats of a nuclear exchange with gay bandon.

Even though Sharif and Vajpayee did not publicly renounce their countries' conventional stands on Kashmir at the unprecedented summit, they seemed ready to move towards a give-and-take settlement. (Sharif even dared to try and replace Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf with a crony, not only to strengthen his hold on power, but basically to have a commander who would not object to a deal with India on Kashmir. As events played out, this was not to be.)

The Lahore Declaration which sought resolution of all mutual problems bilaterally and peacefully and committed both countries to confidence-building measures, was soon in the dustbin, with the Kargil conflict nearly engulfing the two in full-scale war. Fortunately, the threat was defused with Sharif's visit to Washington and the withdrawal of the militants.

Kargil left a legacy of harm. It destroyed not only whatever hope of peaceful bilateral ties the two sides had evoked after the Lahore summit, but also any trust in Pakistan as far as India was concerned. Feeling let down and betrayed, India made use of Kargil to malign Pakistan in the world stage, while Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party and allies took advantage of it to fashion a return to power in the general elections of September 1999. In Pakistan, on the other hand, Kargil blew into the open the simmering conflict between the Sharif government and the country's powerful military — culminating in the stunning coup of 12 October.

The transition of power in the two countries only highlighted the stark contrasts that are India and Pakistan. Vajpayee was thrown out of power by just a single vote; he went out democratically, and came back through elections. Sharif, meanwhile, went out in true Pakistani fashion, following the military's knock on the door. And, of course, he cannot climb back to power, at least not in the foreseeable future.

The coup against Sharif and the swearingin of Vajpayee took place barely within 24 hours of each other. And with the nearsimultaneous advent of a new democratic government in India and a military regime in Pakistan, the two states were doing what they do best: exchange barbs and spar over Kashmir.

The threats of war and possible nuclear exchange have escalated since the new governments assumed power. Both have tested new versions of nuclear-capable missiles, expelled diplomats over charges of spying, exchanged blame for sabotage activities in each other's countries, continued with the regular border skirmishes, and hurled diplomatic abuse at each other. With bilateral ties at their lowest ebb, the Indian Airlines hijack in late December was a diplomatic disaster. Two months after the hijack, India-Pakistan ties still haven't reverted to even the poor state before the episode.

And if all this wasn't enough for the rollercoaster 12 months since the peace bus, to round off the eventful year, there is now the bizarre spectacle of both haggling over US President Bill Clinton's trip to South Asia. The journey will surely serve to sour the India-Pakistan relationship further, and indicate what havoc a year can wreak in bilateral relations. The only sign of hope is that the Delhi-Lahore bus service, which kicked off the turbulent year in the first place, is still running packed.

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Himal Southasian