ISLAMABAD — With elections in Pakistan and Indian-administered Kashmir out of the way, South Asia’s two nuclear-armed neighbors have an opportunity to embark on a new peace initiative.

After months of high tension — unleashed by the deployment of large numbers of troops on both sides — India and Pakistan have begun scaling down their military strength. In the months to come, barring an unexpected setback to relations, it’s possible that the two countries may find a window of opportunity to work for peace.

India may well come around to negotiating with a Pakistani leader other than Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan, meanwhile, may be more inclined toward negotiations between the government of Kashmir in the territory under Islamabad’s control and the newly elected government in the area under Delhi’s control.

Any signs of a peace process would be a first step toward improved relations. In the four years since India began nuclear tests, followed by Pakistan’s tests, the prospect of a future conflict between the two neighbors involving a nuclear exchange has dominated global security concerns in South Asia.

Can India and Pakistan prevent an accidental nuclear conflict? The answer can never be yes, as the chances of an accident will remain as long as the long-standing conflict over the division of the Himalayan state of Kashmir continues. Sustainable peace between India and Pakistan rests on three vital premises:

(1) India and Pakistan are certain to remain locked in their long-term adversarial relationship, interrupted by short periods of temporary improvement, unless a mutually acceptable solution to the dispute over Kashmir is found. For years, the two sides have remained divided over ways to approach the subject amid charges and countercharges of one side or the other acting in bad faith. Although the world has worried about the danger of a nuclear conflict, there have been few active attempts to become politically involved so as to encourage a solution. Ultimately, sustaining any improvement in relations must be driven by an intense Indo-Pakistani political process with the active backing of a major Western power.

(2) There are as yet few signs of a broader Indo-Pakistani engagement that could help foster future relations. India and Pakistan, despite their geographical proximity, have little to offer in trade or economic ties. The narrow range of bilateral relations is an outcome of years of acrimonious relations. A new peace process will lose half its meaning unless it is backed by a strong push for wider relations in the years to come.

(3) The political success of conservative and radical groups within both countries has marked a hardening of opinions. Pakistan’s recent elections have seen the spectacular rise of hardline Islamic groups as the third-largest force in Parliament — in sharp contrast to their traditional position as peripheral players. In India, the rise of Hindu fundamentalist groups over the past few years has clearly demonstrated the inroads made by hardline groups across the world’s most populous democracy.

In time, India and Pakistan’s future choices should be influenced by the views of key political players. Ultimately the two countries will have to reconcile themselves to the practical reality of dealing bilaterally and setting aside ideological baggage, at least temporarily. The ability of India and Pakistan to make this transition may well be influenced by the extent to which their domestic political players seek to come on board.

For too long, India and Pakistan have been driven by a legacy of the past that continues to undermine their present relationship. The challenge now is to seek a course for a fundamentally different future. It would be naive to assume that the recent elections in themselves have created a window of opportunity to facilitate such a change, although certainly now there is the opportunity for a first step toward a new and long-awaited beginning.

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