Will Imran Khan’s win further set back Indo-Pak ties?

YES | Kanwal Sibal


Neither he nor the Pakistani military will want to seriously move forward with India


Several issues account for the dismal state of India-Pakistan relations: the wounds of Partition, the chronic Kashmir issue, four armed conflicts, jihadi terrorism against India, the increasing radicalisation of Pakistani society, water-related differences, Islamabad’s nuclear posture, the military-civilian equation in Pakistan and the Army’s control over policymaking towards India. In the last seven decades, Pakistan has experienced both civilian governments and direct military rule but bilateral relations have remained inimical, notwithstanding periodic exchanges at the highest political level, signing of agreements and declarations, structured dialogue at functional levels, back-channel contacts, and so on.

The military’s backing

Against this background, Imran Khan’s victory not only holds no hope of improved understanding, but will also make the handling of bilateral ties more difficult. The Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence have paved the way for Mr. Khan’s victory. They did this by first backing Mr. Khan’s street protests against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, then manipulating the Pakistani judiciary to dislodge Mr. Sharif from his prime ministership on corruption charges and imprison him, and then dividing the conservative vote bank of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) by engineering the participation of several extremist religious groups in the election, and pressuring the media. Mr. Khan has been denied an absolute majority and will therefore do the bidding of the Pakistani military on India much more than Mr. Sharif. The former Prime Minsiter, despite his rancour against the military, launched tirades against India on Kashmir, did not accelerate the trial of those responsible for the Mumbai terrorist attacks, did not investigate properly the involvement of Pakistani jihadis in the Uri assault, and did not deliver on trade issues.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Khan, while addressing the nation, focussed primarily on resolving the Kashmir issue in accordance with UN resolutions. His declaration — that if India moved one step, Pakistan would move two — was intended to put the ball in India’s court. However, what is unclear is what that first step is that Mr. Khan expects from India. India has made eschewing of terrorism essential for resuming dialogue. Mr. Khan will have to curb jihadi groups (and particularly Hafiz Saeed) if he means business. But this will not happen because of his known links to extremist religious groups, and the establishment’s strategic purpose of politically mainstreaming jihadi organisations.

Mr. Khan’s Afghanistan policy can be expected to put Islamabad even more at odds with India’s interests there. Economic development and poverty alleviation through beneficial mutual trade exchanges are banalities that we have heard before. That Mr. Khan looks to the Medina model for Pakistan’s economic well-being shows a deep and complicating Islamic outlook. A serious move to expand trade ties will inevitably bring in issues of India’s connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia with serious implications for Pakistan’s existing strategy to impede India’s links to that region.

No moving forward

Mr. Khan’s swipes at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his belief that India favoured Mr. Sharif over him will be unhelpful for bilateral ties. Moreover, neither he nor the Pakistani military will want to seriously move forward with India, especially on terrorism, as that would give India a diplomatic victory that would boost the BJP’s electoral prospects in 2019. A leadership change in Islamabad and Mr. Khan’s cliched remarks are no reason for India to engage in wishful thinking about the possibility of holding a productive dialogue with Pakistan.

Kanwal Sibal is a former Foreign Secretary to the Government of India


NO | Sudheendra Kulkarni


There should be national consensus in India on engaging the civil-military centres in Pakistan


When do two nations locked in a hostile relationship begin to embrace cooperation? What if the two nations are neighbours and nuclear powers and hence neither can militarily — and also for other compelling geopolitical factors — defeat the other in a war? Most importantly, what if there is ample evidence that good neighbourliness can contribute to their prosperity and to the well-being of their people?

The leaders of India and Pakistan, to whom these questions are addressed, should know that the answer given by history is simple: Hostility ends only when both sides begin to talk peace with sincerity, commitment, determination and mutual trust. Pakistan now has a new leader. Every new leader must be listened to. Listening is a precondition to talking.

What Imran Khan said

I met Imran Khan at his Islamabad residence last year. Expressing his firm commitment to improving India-Pakistan relations, he said three things. One: “Peace is the only option we have. And dialogue is the only way to resolve all our outstanding issues. We’ve fought many wars. But the path of conflict offers no solution.” Two: “I had high hopes from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to drive the peace process. He is a strong leader, but he has not been consistent.” Three, when asked about terrorism as a hurdle in talks, he replied, “It’s a complicated problem. Pakistan is also battling terrorism. India should recognise that Kashmir is the core issue. We should resolve the core issue. If we begin talking seriously about solving the Kashmir problem, I am sure our relations will improve rapidly.” His answer was not comprehensive, but there was sincerity. Mr. Khan reaffirmed this positive approach in his victory speech. He said: “If India’s leadership is ready, we are ready to improve ties with India. If you step forward one step, we’ll take two. I say this with conviction, this will be the most important thing for the subcontinent, for both countries to have friendship.”

He reiterated that Kashmir is the “core” issue, and he is right. Indians should be honest and objective in recognising that the Kashmir issue predates the problem of terrorism by many decades. What Mr. Khan said is significant: “The leaders of India and Pakistan should sit across the table and resolve the [Kashmir] issue... But if this blame game continues that Pakistan is creating troubles [in India] and we believe that whatever is happening in Balochistan is happening because of India, then we are back to square one.”

A suggestion

Many Indian sceptics ask: But does the Pakistan Army want peace with India? This begets the counter-question: Has the Indian government engaged with the Pakistan Army at any level? Does it want to? During my visit to Pakistan a month ago, I heard from many people in the know of the civil-military relationship in that country that the Pakistan Army wants peace with India as much as its political leaders do. “But the settlement has to be fair, honourable and along the principle of sovereign equality,” they said.

Here is a suggestion. Let there be national consensus in India on engaging both sides of the civil-military power centres in Pakistan, and on how India should resolve the Kashmir issue through talks with Pakistan. I am sure we will find honest partners in both Imran Khan and General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Sudheendra Kulkarni was an advisor to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee


IT’S COMPLICATED | Pallavi Raghavan


His instincts and the military’s support for better ties should not be underestimated


Imran Khan wears many hats with ease. It is a valuable skill to convincingly straddle a modern, cosmopolitan and westernised identity and a socially conservative and increasingly religious one. Mr. Khan also seems to be able to shed one and adopt the other without necessarily alienating either section of society — for the time being at least. This was highlighted most clearly in his marriage this year to a devotee of the Sufi order in the Punjab after his divorce from an English-speaking journalist in 2015.

Mr. Khan is also a relatively unusual politician, at least by South Asian standards, for he does not have a dynasty behind him. His rise was not founded on dynastic wealth, and his entry into politics was not because of any need for financial gain.

Cannot be compartmentalised

While his critics accuse him — probably justifiably — of proximity to the military, such accusations do not necessarily indicate a neat differentiation between democratic candidates and military-backed ones. After all, Nawaz Sharif had also faced the same sets of criticisms, only to end up in this round as someone who did not necessarily reflect the will of the military. In several ways, Mr. Khan does not easily fit into the mould of a technocratic politician or a convenient pawn for the generals. While he may well be a candidate who was preferred by the Army, the phenomenon that Mr. Khan embodies is more interesting than that.

His main pledges were about representing a brand of aspirational politics and attacking the forces that benefit from and maintain the status quo. Mr. Khan promises to eradicate corruption and deliver a better model of governance in Pakistan. Such models of campaigning have their cynical responses — in India, for instance, this seemed to also favour the urban middle class and occasionally slightly trite-sounding ideas about morality in politics. It is also worth recalling that after Arvind Kejriwal’s rise, his day-to-day activities currently include being locked in a dead-end dispute with the shareholders of what he would call the status quo. Mr. Khan might well be backed by larger numbers of supporters than Mr. Kejriwal. His rallies, he claims, were attended in numbers not seen since the era of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. And there is no reason that this formulation — outsider, anti-establishment and anti-corruption — cannot be used for shaping a more stable relationship with India.

Relations with India

Mr. Khan was quite careful to flag trade relations with India in his victory speech and seemed to be suggesting that there was no reason that this should not be multiplied. The hindrances to this objective are well known: fears of a soft border for trade leading to a loss of monopolies by major stakeholders and a suspicious political climate for bilateral relations have led to dramatic falls in the levels of cross-border trade.

But Mr. Khan’s persuasiveness in fashioning a consensus around the desirability of increased trade — within a platform that promises to deliver better economic conditions so that Pakistanis can finally liberate themselves from bad governance by the ruling elite — should not be overlooked.

We should not underestimate the potential of a politician whose instincts and values are not disliked by the generals. Add to this the fact that Pakistan’s military establishment has also frequently supported a better bilateral relationship, and the potential of this present moment should not be underestimated.

Pallavi Raghavan is an assistant professor at the OP Jindal Global University

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Printable version | Jul 10, 2020 9:57:02 AM |

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