Imran Khan faces tough pitch on India-Pakistan ties

In his very first media interaction after the election in Pakistan, flamboyant former cricketer Imran Khan, who appears well-positioned to become the country’s newest prime minister, has outlined his foreign policy template prioritising the two key neighbours: China and India. Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party’s ascent to power is a departure from the traditional bipartisan narrative of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (N), and therefore, his remarks about the foreign policy would naturally be keenly analysed in Beijing and New Delhi.

With regards to India, Khan’s statement has set out three parameters for pulling New Delhi-Islamabad ties from the nadir of the last two years since the terror attacks on an Indian air base in Punjab and an army camp in Jammu and Kashmir in 2016. The Uri attack was the deadliest on an Indian military set-up in two decades. The two incidents had left 26 Indian defence personnel dead and led to the cancellation of Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two countries as well as India’s boycott of the SAARC Summit in Islamabad.

The first parameter set by Khan is that the initiative for normalisation of bilateral relations should come from India; second, Kashmir is the core issue; and third, the blame-game between the two countries must end. India is yet to officially react to his articulation. But the assessment in the Indian establishment is that Khan has stuck to the well-known position of both the civilian and military set-ups in Pakistan. That is quite expected in New Delhi where the general perception is that Khan has the tacit backing of the army. So large was the shadow of the army over the election in Pakistan that it was often wondered on both sides of the border whether it was the general election or the (military) “General’s election”.

The manifesto of Khan’s party talked about the Kashmir issue. In his election speeches, he accused former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of compromising with India to protect his personal financial gains. He also charged Sharif with trying to ensure India continues with its “thanedaari” (policing) in South Asia. Barring these, Khan had refrained from largescale India-bashing in the entire poll campaign.

However, India has reasons to be cautious in being enthusiastic about Khan and the new political landscape painted by the parliamentary elections in Pakistan. The main reasons for this are: 1) Khan is a new political product as far as its dealing with India is concerned; 2) his outreach to religious radicals; and 3) the army will never allow any civilian government in Islamabad to cross certain red lines drawn by the military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Most Pakistan-watchers in India reckon that Imran Khan will not muster the courage to go against the army with regard to the fundamental moorings of Pakistan’s foreign and security policies. That is something no civilian government in Pakistan has ever done. If Khan has to lead a coalition, he will also come under pressure from religious groups like Majlis-e-Amal to toe a hawkish line on issues related to India.

Besides, Khan has over the years tried to cosy up to the military and the religious radicals by endorsing their views on certain issues in order to consolidate his political standing against PPP and PML(N). In fact, if one looks at Pakistan’s history from the reign of Benazir Bhutto in 1988 down to Nawaz Sharif in 1999 and this year, one finds that the army has always put them down if they attempted to deviate from the “lakshmanrekha” set by the men in uniform when it comes to dealing with India. A classic case was what happened in 1999. The then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee undertook a historic bus journey to Lahore to promote friendship with Pakistan in February that year, and the Pakistan army responded to that peace initiative by pushing in intruders in Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir soon thereafter. Nawaz Sharif had to pay heavily eight months later, in October 1999, by being toppled as PM in a coup by army chief Pervez Musharraf. Interestingly, Imran Khan’s remarks about ties with India came on a day when Indians were celebrating the “Vijay Divas”, which marks the success of Indian troops in recapturing the Himalayan heights occupied by Pakistani forces.

For its part, India is likely to reiterate its own parameters for any future peace initiative with Pakistan, the first and foremost being an end to sponsoring of cross-border terrorism by Pakistan. India has made it quite clear that talks and terror cannot go on at the same time. Besides, India-Pakistan relation is highly susceptible to terror attacks. Right from 1999 down to 2016, each time there was a major terror strike in India, fledgling efforts for normalisation had gone haywire.

Secondly, and this is perhaps the most important question now: will the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have the appetite for a fresh peace initiative with Pakistan when fresh parliamentary elections in India are just months away? Such a venture is politically risky as any failure may prove electorally costly for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Pakistan needs to go for a radical change in its policy if it wants a meaningful turnaround in relations with India. But as of date, that will not happen. Where, then, are India-Pakistan ties headed to is anybody’s guess.

Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent to The Daily Star.


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