India has welcomed PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari's election as Pakistan's president and expressed the hope that his elevation to the highest position in Islamabad would impact positively on Pakistan-India relations. In his message to President Zardari, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh greeted him by conveying his government's desire "to build close ties of friendship and partnership" between the two countries, and assured him that in this pursuit, he will find "a friend in India." This certainly is a welcome change from India's National Security Advisor M K Narayanan's earlier apprehensions of what he expected to be a "big vacuum" after General Musharraf's disappearance from Pakistan's scene. Asif Ali Zardari is firmly in saddle now and has also spoken of how he intends to proceed with India-Pakistan peace process. In his first media encounter after assuming his office, he promised to soon give "good news" on Kashmir. No one knows the basis for his over-optimism. It is encouraging nevertheless that President Zardari is already in "dialogue" with major political stakeholders in Pakistan, and would establish a Kashmir "caucus" within the Parliament's Kashmir Committee to generate the needed political consensus on the PPP-led government's new India policy. But what Zardari and his party need to understand is that there will be no quick fixes, and no "consensus-building" process on Kashmir would be complete without the involvement and participation of the representatives of the Kashmiri people. The current turmoil in Kashmir marked by an indigenous uprising of the Kashmiri people who since June this year have been staging massive peaceful protests against the Indian rule and demanding azadi should be an eye-opener for governments in both India and Pakistan. One wonders if our president has had time to be fully briefed on the current situation in Indian-held Kashmir and on the complexities of this issue involved. The most insightful account of the current situation in Kashmir came from India's Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy who in a recent article in the Indian news magazine Outlook challenged the world's and India's conscience on this issue drawing their attention to a huge price being paid in terms of military, material, moral and human costs in keeping the Indian occupation of Kashmir against the wishes of its people. This situation has not gone unnoticed in India where calls for a Kashmir solution now abound on television talk shows and opinion pages of major newspapers. In a recent column, Think the Unthinkable, in the mass circulation English daily Hindustan Times, another Indian columnist Vir Sanghvi posed the question: Why is India still hanging on to Kashmir if the Kashmiris do not want to have anything to do with India? And there is a shift in Indian public opinion as well. According to a nine city survey conducted by the Times of India, a sizeable 30 percent felt that if the economic and human costs were so high, India should not hold on to the Kashmir. On India-Pakistan relations, Zardari is on record having already said publicly in recent months that he stands for peace between the two countries. His party too believes in developing good relations with India within the framework of the Simla Agreement and is committed to pursuing the composite dialogue for a peaceful settlement of all outstanding issues including Kashmir. In its manifesto, the PPP supports the "right of self-determination" for all peoples including the Kashmiri people. In May this year, after his meeting with India's external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee during the latter's visit to Islamabad, Zardari spoke about "the historic relationship" his party had with India's Congress Party, and said, "It was part of Shaheed Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's doctrine of India-Pakistan relations." He underlined the need for a "cooperative relationship" between the two countries, Then on June 27, Asif Ali Zardari used a Tehelka-organised conference on India-Pakistan relation in London to outline his party's vision on how it would seek to improve relations between the two countries. In a written message read out at the conference on his behalf, he said, "The PPP believes that Indo-Pakistan relations can and should be creatively discovered. This requires making conscious decisions and deliberate choices." He termed Kashmir as a "solvable" problem but in his view lack of a solution on this issue should not hold up progress in other areas, Zardari further said in his message that "pending a final settlement, we agree with what India's prime minister had said supporting an autonomous Kashmir running much of its own affairs. A commission can be established between the two countries and Kashmiri leaders to work out what should be done in foreign and defence affairs." "While working out the solution to Kashmir, we should not allow slow progress on it to be an obstacle to work in other cooperative matters," he added, The PPP also supported India-Pakistan joint cooperation in anti-terrorism efforts. Zardari called upon India and Pakistan to learn from the India-China model in pushing ahead with trade and commerce while addressing their difficult border dispute. "India and China both have a dispute but they do not go to war against each other. We must learn from this model to develop our own relations," he also said that the PPP has made trade, not conflict with India, a top priority of its India policy. "After 60 years of independence and mutual acrimony, we must now pledge an end to war, terrorism, death and destruction," Zardari said. These are positive vibes and reflect very faithfully the PPP's manifesto commitments. Unless there are unanticipated regional and global diversions and domestic political glitches, we should now expect the continuation of the same peace process that was initiated by Nawaz Sharif in February 1999 at the Lahore Summit, in which both countries had solemnly pledged to "intensify their efforts to resolve all issues, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. One only hopes President Zardari will not be relying on his beleaguered predecessor's freemasonry "backchannel" piloted by the military dictator's "trusted" emissary to negotiate and barter the destiny of the Kashmiri people merely as a "confidence-building" measure rather than dealing with it as the "core issue." What happened in the shadowy corridors of Musharraf's "backchannel" never inspired confidence among the people. During the last couple of years, General Musharraf made unprecedented but unreciprocated gestures of flexibility. He proposed a four-point "out of the box" solution of the Kashmir issue which was drawn from an American sponsored think tank, Kashmir Study Group's "Way Forward" for a settlement of the Kashmir dispute. Even if this formula was the only "way forward" towards resolving the Kashmir dispute, major political forces in Pakistan thought a military regime under pressure from all sides had no mandate to negotiate a partial settlement on Kashmir. In recent years, despite repeated and at times comical claims of "forward movement" from our side, the dialogue process never moved beyond rhetoric and mutual tactical posturing. Beyond atmospherics, one never saw any movement from "conflict management" to "conflict-resolution." Some confidence building measures, including the Kashmir bus service, commercial exchanges and people-to-people contacts were taken but their implementation also remained half-hearted. The political government in Pakistan will now rave to discuss bilateral relations more earnestly in Parliament and also win public support for the 'concessions' made by President Musharraf in random public utterances in hotel lobbies or through television channels. The elected government will have to make special efforts to take the people along on any "out of the box" solutions to the "core issue" of Kashmir. The issues will need to be discussed threadbare in the parliamentary chambers and relevant committees. Forward movement in areas that are amenable to quicker solution might be necessary to ensure some kind of synchronicity, if not simultaneity, of progress on all issues as part of the peace process. The task ahead will not be easy given the complexity of the issues involved. There will be no quick fixes. The only silver lining on the horizon is that General Musharraf is gone. We now have a new civilian government in Pakistan, and the major coalition partners are publicly known to be committed to a just and honourable peace with India on the basis of a negotiated settlement of the outstanding disputes. Their negotiating template is reinforced by a political consensus reflected in their electoral manifestos. The process must be sustained with high-level political engagement from both sides by developing a clearer framework of principles to organise their future relations. On Kashmir in particular, substantive discussions on the nature of a settlement must be at the political level. Even in the most optimistic scenario, Kashmir would remain an over-arching factor casting its shadow on the rest of the agenda. Both sides will have to involve the Kashmiri people in the dialogue process. They alone are the arbiters of their destiny. The writer is a former foreign secretary