Mixed feelings in Lahore on eve of PM's visit

By Seema Guha

The Times of India News Service

LAHORE: If there is excitement about Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to Pakistan, there are no signs of it in the capital of Nawaz Sharif's home province, Punjab. Lahore is not decked out to welcome the Indian leader --no welcome arches, no banners. Instead, there have been a number of agitations organised by the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami to protest the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister in over ten years.

Yet, behind the scenes, there is frantic activity to ensure that everything goes smoothly and that the Jamaat sit-in before the Governor's House in Lahore where Mr Vajpayee will hold talks with his host does not blot the momentous occasion. Despite the indifference of the man in the street, there is tremendous expectation among those who matter in Pakistan that something concrete will emerge from this meeting.

As much else in the country, the mood set by the elite is quite different from what the masses feel. The elite here see this attempt by Mr Vajpayee and Mr Sharif as a make-or-break effort which will decide the future of India-Pakistan ties.

``If the two prime ministers cannot achieve a breakthrough and this summit ends as so many other high-level meetings, there will be a definite U-turn in ties. The people of Pakistan at least will never again respond as they have done this time,'' said Imtiyaz Alam, editor- current affairs of The News, a publication committed to better ties with India.

He felt that the mood ever since the tit-for-tat nuclear tests last May is for reconciliation and a desire to set at rest years of acrimony and bitterness. ``It is the right historical moment to which the two leaders must respond. If they don't, they will be confined to the dustbin of history,'' said Alam.

The fact that Mr Vajpayee is the leader of a hardline party like the BJP and Mr Sharif represents the powerful Punjab lobby which makes up the Pakistan establishment, gives them a unique advantage. The other factor in favour of the two leaders is that the main opposition parties in both countries are not averse to reconciliation. Both the Congress Party and the Pakistan Peoples Party have welcomed the move.

To be sure, there are forces in both countries opposed to any move at better relations. However, their influence at the moment, especially in Pakistan, is minimal, say those who are for better ties with India. Yet, forces like the Jamaat-e-Islami, which have no representation in Pakistan's National Assembly, wield solid support among the poorer sections of the community.

The message from the Jamaat and other fundamentalist groups like the militant Lashkar-i-Toiba, Al-Akhwan and Harkat-ul Mujahideen -- all active players in the decade-old violent separatist campaign in Kashmir -- is that they are vehemently anti-Indian. And in the bazaars of Lahore and the madrassas run in crowded backstreets of the country, the fundamentalists spew venom against the infidels from across the border.

Hameed, a fruit seller in a Lahore market said he had no expectations from Mr Vajpayee's visit. ``What can we expect from any Indian leader, they have always gone back on their promises. Look what is happening to the people of Kashmir.'' And even a moderate like taxi driver Arif, who has visited Mumbai and Delhi five years ago, said: ``We want good relations with India but only after the Kashmir problem is solved. Once this is done, we can live like good neighbours.''

The general view here among ordinary people is they want to improve ties with India but not at the cost of Kashmir. The issue of Kashmir is so deep seated in Pakistani psyche that even Nawaz Sharif's councillors on Thursday joined the Jamaat when it protested against Mr Vajpayee's visit at a session of the Lahore Metropolitan Corporation.

rif's councillors on Thursday joined the Jamaat when it protested against Mr Vajpayee's visit at a session of the Lahore Metropolitan Corporation.