DELHI: It augurs well that talks between Delhi and Islamabad have begun in a brisk and businesslike manner, although what has been concluded amicably so far are talks about talks; in other words, how talks over the next six months, culminating in a meet between foreign ministers in July to August, are to be structured.
Both sides have been restrained in their pronouncements, with Pakistan Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar praising the Indian delegations attitude as a constructive one.
These are encouraging signs, as the Agra summit was marred by inadequate preparation as well as a propensity for point scoring and grandstanding before the media. None of that is on display this time.
Ideally speaking, heads of state should meet only to formalise an agreement that is already in the bag. This was hardly the case at Agra.
But the stage for it could be set by a structured sequence of talks between envoys and officials, such as this one.
Another advantage of the current schedule is that substantive talks on difficult issues will begin only in May, after Lok Sabha elections are out of the way. In an electioneering climate, it will be almost impossible on the part of opposition parties to resist the temptation of attacking any concession the government might make during negotiations. Such a consideration, in turn, would hobble Delhi.
Also, snow in mountain passes would have melted by May, giving Delhi sufficient time to gauge Islamabads inclinations.
Whether the news between now and then are dominated by bonhomie on the cricketing field and heartening stories of people-to-people contact, or deadly jehadi attacks launched from across the border, will be a crucial determinant of the negotiations.
In the latter case, Delhi will be faced with a tough problem of discrimination as terror attacks are likely not only if the talks fail, but also if atmospherics are good and malcontents want to sour the peace process.
In that case, the crux will be to see whether President Musharraf is willing to take action against individuals and networks based in Pakistan-controlled territory who are sponsoring such attacks.
It would be best not to harbour unrealistic expectations, but to enter negotiations with an open mind should Islamabad genuinely be interested in turning a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations, Delhi should not be niggardly in reciprocating.
Cynics who say durable peace has not been possible in the last half-century neglect some new factors that have come into play.
With the end of Cold War politics, Islamabad has lost its strategic value to the West, and recent revelations about nuclear leaks from Islamabad have caused American commentators to wonder why the war that was fought against Iraq was not waged against Pakistan instead.
Terror emanating from Islamabad has proven to be indivisible, and there is considerable pressure on it to wind down its terror machinery.
In India, on the other hand, politicians are showing sensitivity to business interests for the first time, and India Inc can only salivate at the prospects that sub-continental peace would throw up.
According to the Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, trade between India and Pakistan can touch US$10bil by 2006.
Joint Indo-Pakistan ventures would speed up the flow of FDI into both countries. And transit through Pakistan would help supply energy-hungry India from Central Asias oil and gas fields, besides opening the Central Asian market to Indian goods.
If Delhi wishes to realise dreams of being an economic superpower by 2020, it will need to settle with Islamabad and quickly.