By Sushant Sareen
In his first speech after winning the general elections in Pakistan (which are also being lampooned as ‘General’s selections’), the Prime Minister designate-to-be, Imran Khan, tried to appear like a statesman. Much of his speech was on what he intended to do, what he resolved to change, what he would try to fix in his country. The focus was on governance, austerity, reforms and economy. But he also touched upon some of the most pressing foreign policy challenges facing Pakistan. He started with relations with China and how much he is inspired by what that country has accomplished. He then went on to talk about Afghanistan, saying the usual stuff that every Pakistani leader says — that they want the best relations with Afghanistan, open borders, peace, etc. After Afghanistan came a sentence or two on Iran, followed by Saudi Arabia, who have helped Pakistan in difficult times, and then the West Asia conflicts in which he wanted to play the role of mediator. Finally, there was a miasma of reference to India, almost as if it was the pro forma thing to do.
Not surprisingly, there was nothing of value in what he said. No new ground was broken, no new offer was made, no new message was given. It was all pretty standard stuff: we want talks with India, if India takes one step, we will take two; we want to have trade with India which will be good for both countries; we need to sit and solve our issues. Of course, he then parroted the usual “Kashmir is the core issue” line, spoke about alleged human rights violations and shed some crocodile tears on how much the Kashmiris have suffered and underscored the need to solve this issue. While some Indian analysts have gone in raptures over this speech and are trying to stitch a coat around a button, the fact of the matter is that what Imran Khan said is what all his predecessors had also said. By qualifying his so-called outreach to India with a solution to Kashmir, he effectively took away with one hand what he had offered from the other hand.
The only difference between Imran Khan and his predecessors is that when the latter (particularly Nawaz Sharif) proposed trade with India, he was accused by Imran Khan of selling out to India, of compromising on Pakistan’s interests for the sake of his own business interests, putting his alleged commercial relationship with some Indian businessmen over national interest.
In short, Nawaz Sharif was accused of being a traitor. That Nawaz Sharif’s government reneged on a deal signed by the PPP government, negotiated a new trade deal which significantly shifted the goal posts, and then backed down from signing even this new trade agreement under the pressure of the Pakistan Army, was conveniently side-stepped by Imran Khan, not just in his campaign against the former Prime Minister but also in his first address to the nation after coming out on top in the elections. He also forgot that his party leaders, including the man set to become the next finance minister, have said on more than one occasion that without Kashmir, there can be no normalisation or even trade with India.
On taking two steps for every one step India takes, the question to be asked is who will let Imran Khan even take half a step forward with India. The policy on India is made by the ‘boys’ in Rawalpindi, not by the politicians in Islamabad. And the ‘boys’ aren’t interested in doing what they need to do to push things forward with India, viz. dismantle the terror factory which they run and the product of which they relentlessly export to India. Without some real movement by Pakistan to address India’s concerns on terrorism – not verbally but on ground – there is unlikely to be any progress on the Indo-Pak track.
Actions, instead of insincere declarations, will be the real test of Pakistani intentions on terrorism, and for now at least, there is little to suggest that Pakistan intends to move beyond false assurances to real action on shutting down the Jihad factory operating against India in that country.
His complaint that he was portrayed as a Bollywood villain by the Indian media is somewhat strange. The Indian media has only repeated the things reported in the Pakistani and western media. There is no Indian correspondent who is present in Pakistan, nor were any Indian journalists allowed to cover the Pakistani ‘elections’. Therefore, if the Indian media formed an opinion on Imran Khan, it was based on what it read and heard in the Pakistani media. In any case, it is Imran Khan’s own omissions and commissions and his statements and speeches that have earned him the moniker of ‘Taliban Khan’ or a womaniser or as a stooge of the military establishment, or an rabidly anti-India character. Perhaps before pointing a finger at the Indian media, he should have examined his own actions and words.
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The question therefore is: can Imran Khan make any difference in Indo-Pak relations? Does he even seriously want to make a difference? The answer to both these questions will have to be in the negative. For one, surely after ridiculing and pillorying Nawaz Sharif for being a ‘Modi’s yaar and Pakistan’s gaddar’, Imran Khan wouldn’t like to be labelled similarly. But, more importantly, he doesn’t have the power to do anything on India. The civilians in Pakistan at best play the role of a post office in Pakistan’s dealings with India. The real McCoy is the Pakistan Army and their inveterate opposition, even hatred, of India is not going to go away simply because someone like Imran has become the Prime Minister.
Forget about any forward movement on the Indo-Pak track, chances are that there could be further regression in the relationship, and even an increase in tension.
The reason for that is that while things are as bad as they can be short of a war, with Imran’s entry even the anti-India rhetoric is going to see a sharp spike which in turn will foul up the optics and atmospherics as well, thereby adding to an already tense relationship. Unlike Nawaz Sharif who himself desisted from making any obnoxious remark on India and left that unpleasant task to his cronies, in Imran Khan’s case, not only his party leaders but he himself has gone hammer and tongs at India. Having promised his people that he will be tough on India and will take India head on and be mealy-mouthed in firing verbal missiles at India, to switch to being a peacemaker and reach out to India is easier said than done, even less so with the military breathing down his neck, and an opposition questioning his legitimacy to run the country on the basis of a badly tainted election and already getting ready to pull him down by doing to him what he did to them.
All in all, there is unlikely to be any real progress between the two countries. While a lot of this has to do with Pakistan’s internal dynamics, some of it also has to do with India’s general elections due next year, and before that three crucial State elections later this year. No Indian government would really like to risk its political capital by taking yet another gamble on trying to improve relations with Pakistan. This means that until mid-2019, there is little chance of any major engagement between the two countries. The Pakistanis, are, however likely to play too clever by half by trying to win some brownie points from the gullible West and will float self-serving proposals like strategic restraint regime, mutual force reduction, pulling back of troops from the LoC – all of these have been made in the past and have been summarily rejected by India. Other than this, expect more harsh words and further downturn in the relations between the two countries.