Washington Toss a question at Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's dignified-to-somnolent prime minister, and it hangs aloft for an eternity as he dismantles each dependent clause and inspects each adverb for danger or slight. Then Vajpayee begins an answer that will stretch across eons of pauses and epochs of vanilla, invariably leaving his interrogators guessing what he meant or even trying to remember what they had asked.
The subject of a recent conversation in New Delhi was the military confrontation in Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Vajpayee's dirigible of an answer floated down to this finale: "The day will come when India and Pakistan will be friends. It may not be right away, however."
Pervez Musharraf treats questions as a skeet shooter treats clay pigeons. The Pakistani president enthusiastically blazed away in Islamabad two days later at the same subject and sent shards flying in all directions. Peace would be at hand if only the United States would prod India to the negotiating table. He and Vajpayee had nearly settled all this last summer in a meeting in Agra. They still could, simply by sitting down under U.S. oversight and talking about Musharraf's new four-point plan on Kashmir.
"We are killing each other almost daily along the line of control," he asserted dramatically to underpin his appeal for immediate U.S. mediation. Then he wheeled to turn his fire on Vajpayee, the man he had just lauded as a potential partner in peace, and on Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh:
"They went back on their word. I told Vajpayee at Agra: We have been humiliated, and so have you. Maybe I should talk to the main decider" in the Indian government the next time, he said he told India's leader, who Musharraf assumed had been overruled by "hardliners" in New Delhi.
President Bush is host to the verbal skeet shooter on Wednesday at the White House. It is a high-profile meeting that Musharraf will want to center on Kashmir. Bush needs to keep it focused on Afghanistan, the search for al-Qaida's leaders and Pakistan's need for sweeping internal reform. And this is a moment for Bush to keep firmly in mind the vividly contrasting styles, mind-sets and strategic goals of the current Pakistani and Indian leaderships.
There are times when getting foes together at the summit can help move their conflicts in the right direction. This is not such a time for India and Pakistan. Diplomacy in the Asian subcontinent should in fact concentrate on keeping Musharraf and Vajpayee out of the same room while their armies are still nose-to-nose as a result of the Dec. 13 terrorist attack on India's Parliament.
The Pakistani hare yearns to race circles around the Indian tortoise once again, as he did in the Agra summit that Musharraf ended in his own account by openly insulting Vajpayee. Musharraf performed that same feat with the same evident unawareness of the effect he produced in a showy performance in Katmandu in December.
There is a tone deafness in this relationship, as well as growing personal animosities, that make summitry a dangerous and unnecessary diplomatic option for India and Pakistan. It should receive no U.S. blessing or impetus this week in Washington.
Needed instead are modest confidence-building measures that can be worked out in low-level contacts between the two sides, with minimal U.S. involvement. Attempts to resolve Kashmir politically should be shelved for the time being. Military de-escalation rather than statesmanship for the ages is the requisite of the day.
Mother Nature has helped cool the confrontation in recent weeks. Heavy snowfalls in Kashmir have inhibited guerrilla infiltration or troop movements along the disputed territory's line of control. Musharraf's promises to curb any acts of terror from Pakistani territory have perhaps been easier to keep than even he anticipated.
The danger of conflict yet erupting may be shifting to India's tendency to overplay its hand in the wake of conciliatory comments offered by Musharraf on Jan. 12. The decision by Vajpayee to let a scheduled missile test firing go ahead at the end of January bordered on provocation. And New Delhi has failed to ease the travel and diplomatic restrictions it put in place in December, despite Musharraf's subsequent cooperation with Secretary of State Colin Powell in reducing border tensions.
There are foothills that can be climbed by lower-level officials, who must begin to break down the big problems that plague these two neighbors into small, manageable pieces. That pedestrian approach is not in Musharraf's nature, but ultimately it is in his interest.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.