Two months after Pakistan first made its proposal for a nonaggression pact, India made a positive response today.
The answer, however, was couched in a way that appears guaranteed to bring no results.
Foreign Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao told both houses of Parliament that India would consider Pakistan's offer of a nonaggression agreement on the basis of it being an unconditional acceptance of an Indian proposal first made in 1949, repeated "on numerous occasions since" but continually rejected by Pakistan.
His statement came one day after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told a National Defense College audience that India is willing to discuss a nonaggression pact if Pakistan really is serious about it.
But Gandhi repeated the Indian position, also contained in Rao's statement to Parliament, that Pakistan's offer is flawed because it was contained in a statement announcing Islamabad's acceptance of a five-year, $3.2 billion military sales and economic aid package from the United States.
That Pakistani statement, Rao said, justified the acquisition of arms "which are more likely to regenerate confrontation and to promote an arms race in the Subcontinent."
He suggested that Pakistan's Sept. 15 offer "to enter into immediate consultations with India for the purpose of exchanging mutual guarantees of nonaggression and non-use of force" was aimed more at Washington, where the U.S. Congress was beginning hearings on the aid package, than at New Delhi.
India's reluctance over the past two months to take up Pakistan on its offer to renounce war vividly illustrates the lack of trust and understanding that permeates the relations between these two nations, which have fought three wars in the past 34 years.
It also shows how India, by far the more powerful of the two neighbors, has been unable to meet the new Pakistani peace offensive, which has left New Delhi stuttering and given the martial-law government of Mohammed Zia ul-Haq a leg up in the international battle for public opinion.
"India has been so inept" over the no-war pact offer, said a senior Western diplomat with wide experience in both countries.
"I just think the Indians are damaging their own case by being so shrill. All Pakistan has to do is sit back and appear reasonable. As a result, India has lost the propaganda war. The Pakistanis are scoring all the points."
It appeared that today's statement was an attempt by the Gandhi government to reverse that image.
Rao's statement seemed to be laying the groundwork for rejection since he listed previous refusals by Pakistani leaders to accept a nonaggression pact without first solving the question of who shall govern the disputed territory of Kashmir -- the direct cause of two of the three Indo-Pakistani wars.
The latest no-war pact offer does not mention the Kashmir issue but the Rao statement quoted press reports of Pakistan's foreign minister, Agha Shahi, telling correspondents in New York that Zia's offer does not contradict a previous position that any no-war pact should follow the resolution of the Kashmir dispute.
The Indian task is further complicated by its large-scale arms acquisitions at a time it is trying to blame Pakistan and the United States for starting an arms race in the Subcontinent.
Noor Ahmed Husain, director general of the Pakistan Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad, estimates that India has concluded deals for the purchase of $10 billion to $12 billion over the past five years.
The Gandhi government, moreover, appears ready to sign a deal with France for the purchase of 150 advanced Mirage-2000 warplanes at a cost of $3.3 billion.
The Indian Embassy in Washington told Congress in a letter that the purchase was necessary because the United States was selling Pakistan 40 F16 fighter bombers as part of the new military sales package.
But Gandhi's son Rajiv has acknowledged to foreign correspondents here that negotiations for the Mirages started two years ago, when the F16s were no more than a gleam in Zia's eye.