By DANIEL SNEIDER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
For two weeks the front pages of Indian newspapers have been filled with the leading Hindu nationalist leader's visit to Pakistan and the political storm that ensued after he paid homage at the tomb of the founder of the Islamic republic.
Despite the tumult, the mere fact of the visit underscores the positive change in mood between India and Pakistan in recent months. For the United States, which is trying to pull off the delicate feat of improving relations simultaneously with both countries, signs of growing engagement between these two historic rivals can only be welcomed.
The controversy began when L.K. Advani, a former deputy prime minister who heads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), became the first senior Indian leader to visit the mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The Pakistani founder has long been reviled by many Indiansas the architect of the bloody partition of British India into a Muslim Pakistan and a Hindu-majority India.
Advani wrote in the visitors' book, however, that Jinnah was a "rare individual" who had left "an erasable stamp on history," an inscription he very deliberately circulated to Indian media. In a speech, Advani described Jinnah as a "secular" leader -- not the architect of a division along religious lines. And he pointedly disavowed his role in inciting the 1992 destruction of a historic mosque that triggered waves of communal violence within India.
Advani's message was that it was time to forget the past and look forward. He even suggested subsequently that India and Pakistan could some day form a European style confederation.
Advani has said much of this before, but the setting made these remarks spectacular. His party, which long has espoused the view that India should never have been divided, was openly at odds with him. Leaders of the Hindu activist groups that form the base of the party denounced Advani as a "traitor." Advani resigned, but the party leadership asked him back, though they continue to disassociate themselves from his statements.
Advani obviously believes his political future depends on distancing himself from his Hindu nationalist roots and from a reputation as a hard-liner in that camp. He has read the political winds in India, and in South Asia, much better than most of his party colleagues.
From exchanges of visits to inauguration of bus service across the cease-fire line that divides the disputed territory of Kashmir, there is a palpable change in the atmosphere between India and Pakistan.
"People to people sentiment in both India and Pakistan strongly supports taking this process forward," observed R.K. Mishra, chairman of the Observer Research Foundation, a leading Indian think-tank. "It is not publicly risky any more to say Indo-Pakistan relations should improve," he told me in an interview from New Delhi.
The BJP-led government of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wisely displayed moderation and leadership in improving relations with Pakistan after the two nuclear-armed nations came perilously close to war three years ago. But the BJP suffered a humiliating defeat last year at the hands of the more secularist Congress party, a vote that was in part a repudiation of the politics of Hindu chauvinism.
"Advani realized that unless he changed his image, he would not be able to be Prime Minister of this country," said Mishra.
Indian leaders, including the Congress-led government, know the current trend in India-Pakistan relations is not yet irreversible. So far there is much more rhetoric than reality -- particularly when it comes to Pakistan's willingness to control the flow of armed Islamic insurgents across the border into Kashmir.
Despite claims to have shut down the infrastructure of terrorism in Pakistan, including the support of Pakistan's army intelligence services for such activities, such activity has picked up recently, South Asian security expert Ashley Tellis told the U.S. Congress at hearings last week.
But that sense of caution should not diminish the lesson of the Advani affair -- that Indian political leaders across the board now feel compelled to support engagement with Pakistan. Hopefully that trend will spread across the border as well.
X Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.