Paradoxical as it may sound, India and Pakistan are now better placed to resume bilateral talks than before Pokhran and Chagai. The nuclear genie is out of the bottle. Both countries have addressed their respective nuclear angst's - India's complaint that the acknowledged nuclear powers have shut the door on her, Pakistan's that it has "no choice" but to follow India. It can be argued, as this newspaper has, that Pakistan would have been better off without testing. That they passed up the opportunity is understandable because of domestic pressure. There was little choice for Nawaz Sharif, who left to himself is not a reflexive bigot. But now that Nawaz Sharif's hands have been, in part, forced to press the nuclear button, he and the Indian Prime Minister must take the lead in heading off hawks in their respective countries from starting the idiotic folly of an arms race that is not strategically necessary - the balance of terror is established - and will be economically disastrous. Instead, the two countries can now use the shade of their nuclear umbrellas to sit down and talk on issues that have nothing to do with kilotons but are damaging nonetheless.
India, the bigger and arguably the more mature of the two, must take the lead. And no lead is better than a grand policy on Kashmir. Home Minister L. K. Advani has been vocal on tackling militancy in the valley. His calls for pro-active action against militants are perhaps in deliberate and planned contrast to the Prime Minister's moderate approach. But diplomacy is all about responding to changing situations. And India should respond to Pakistan's tests and the possibility of escalating tensions by making a unilateral posture on Kashmir. It can announce that the government will exhume the nearly five decades old United Nations proposal to hold a referendum on the question of the valley's (Jammu & Kashmir) territorial loyalty.
This will seem proposterous to the BJP, indeed to many Indians. But an astute political party - and the BJP has shown it can be one - does not remain a prisoner of conventional wisdom. More, a referendum on and in Kashmir, internationally supervised, will again put India in a different league from one defined by sub-continental squabbles - a status the BJP thinks the country deserves. The "worst" possibility is that Kashmir may not choose to remain with India. Is that too bad a prospect compared to the price India pays in blood, money, and a general marring of reputation when the troops "occasionally" misbehave. A Kashmir referendum will also blunt global condemnation of the sub-continent as a mad hatter area full of nuke-wielding hot-heads. As well as force Pakistan to drop its belligerence, both verbal and clandestine. These are benefits that can be grabbed only by a government with vision and courage. The question is does Atal Behari Vajpayee have the vision. Or will he risk the well-worn grooves of sub-continental charades.
Catholics and Protestants have called a truce to violence and bloodshed in Northern Ireland after a quarter century. Earlier France and Germany fought bitterly over Alsace Lorraine since the end of the First World War: now no one remembers who has got it. We can do the same with Kashmir. Do we have the necessary confidence in ourselves?