Leader takes a bus to summit

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SOUTH ASIA will today witness the boldest act of political theatre it has seen for some years when the Indian Prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, boards the first bus to run from Delhi to the Pakistani city of Lahore, where he will meet up with the Pakistani premier, Nawaz Sharif, and proceed to a summit conference.

This bus, touted as the first scheduled service to run between India and Pakistan, will pick up Mr Vajpayee at Amritsar, a few kilometres from the border post of Wagah, and having deposited him at Wagah will smartly turn round and head back to India.

Cynics might observe that no date has been set for the start of the scheduled service, and that the bus thing is, at present, no more than a sort of political make-believe.

No matter: as Mr Vajpayee has pointed out, going by bus - even an air- conditioned one with television and multi-channel audio - brings diplomacy to the level of the common man. It reminds him that these countries are neighbours; that they speak the same language, even if they give it different names (Hindi and Urdu) and write it in different scripts; that their chronic antagonism is at least as artificial as that between North and South Korea.

Such reminders, percolating to the masses, are political dynamite.

Few are betting large sums that the summit will break the diplomatic logjam. In Lahore, the All Jammu & Kashmir Muslim Conference held a protest meeting under a sign that read: "Visit a new threat to Pakistan - Indian dogs go back home."

But between them Mr Vajpayee and Mr Sharif have set things in motion. The two nations are playing cricket today. It's the last day of a five- day Test and the result is on a knife-edge. But Indian MPs flew to Pakistan the other day for a first look around. Under the shadow of nuclear terror, South Asia is becoming a new place.