India’s Imran Khan challenge7 min read . Updated: 02 Aug 2018, 02:47 PM IST
How will Imran Khan's ascendancy impact India-Pakistan relations? So far, he hasn't made any moves to inspire confidence
New Delhi: A new government in a country, that too one headed by a relatively new party after defeating two well entrenched political groups, is usually seen as a chance to begin afresh—both within the country and outside. However, if that country is Pakistan then these assumptions don’t apply. For starters, news reports on Pakistan election have been talking of how the Pakistan Army—the most powerful institution in the country—was working overtime to skew the poll results in favour of Imran Khan, the 65-year-old cricketer turned politician who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
According to Christine C. Fair, a professor at the Washington-based Georgetown University, the Pakistan Army and its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency “worked relentlessly to improve Khan’s political prospects" in the months leading up to the election.
The ISI, she wrote in an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, “helped fund his rallies throughout the country and shape him into a winning candidate."
Against this backdrop, chances of a fresh beginning with India—which has fought four wars with Pakistan since 1947 and which the Pakistan Army has pledged to bleed through “a thousand cuts"—seems a non starter. For one, Pakistan’s India policy is shaped by the Army. Any politician trying to plough a furrow different from that of the Army and shape their own India policy has come to grief. Speculation has it that this is one of the reasons for the Army to abandon former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif is now in prison after an anti-corruption court found him guilty of owning undeclared luxury flats in London.
“What I have managed to pick up is that the Pakistan Army is not keen on resuming the peace process with India," Ayesha Siddiqua, a Pakistani political analyst, said in a phone interview from London. “So, superficially, Pakistan could reach out to India saying that India should forget about Mumbai (26/11 terrorist attacks) and shake hands with Pakistan," Siddiqua said.
Impact on India-Pakistan relations
On the face of it, Khan comes with no political baggage like for instance former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the one who signed the 1972 Simla Accord after the defeat of Pakistan in the 1971 war with India. The Simla pact enjoins Pakistan to sort out all differences with India—including the issue of Kashmir—bilaterally.
“Maybe if there is a meeting between him (Khan) and prime minister (Narendra) Modi in some world capital somewhere outside the subcontinent, there could be a breakthrough," said Dilip Sinha, a former Indian foreign ministry official who was in charge of the Pakistan desk between 2005-07.
Khan may be persuaded to try and build better ties with India because of the seriousness of his country’s economic problems, Sinha said.
“Pakistan is facing a serious balance of payments crisis. And it will have to approach the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout which will come with strict conditions," Sinha said. This includes no diversion of funds for terrorist or extremist activities.
It’s not only the IMF. Just weeks before Pakistan election, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—set up in 1989 to combat money laundering and later expanded its mandate to include combating terrorist financing in 2001—had placed Pakistan on “grey list". Given all this, Khan may be persuaded to ask the fundamentalists and the army to lie low for a while," Sinha said. This could mean no high-profile terrorist strikes in India—something that could give Modi the room to respond to any peace overtures from Pakistan, he said.
Former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh pointed to US pressure on Pakistan especially in the wake of Donald Trump taking office as president in January last year.
“The Trump administration has taken an overtly tough stand on Pakistan and terrorism. It has called for Pakistan to be punished for its double standards on terrorism. The US is keen on talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Due to all this, it is possible that there is a slight easing of terrorist attacks in India but that should not lull us into thinking Pakistan is mending its ways," Mansingh said.
So far, Khan hasn’t made any moves to inspire confidence in India.
On Thursday, in a speech claiming victory in Pakistan election, Khan did say that “if India takes one step forward (on peace with Pakistan) we will take two."
But he also said that “(the) Kashmir (dispute) was the core issue" bedeviling ties between the neighbours—something India rejects, stating that terrorism supported by Pakistan in Kashmir and other parts of India is the main problem. He also brought up “human rights violations" perpetrated by the Indian security forces in Kashmir—something India denies. Khan’s support for the Kashmir freedom movement could also embolden those seeking secession from India.
The change in Imran Khan’s views
All this seems to be a far cry from the views he held in 2013.
In an interview in December 2013, Khan said Pakistan was “sick of the military" and that all parties think “it’s time to move on and have peaceful relations with India. And so that is where the military and the militancy comes in, that there is no military solution or solution through militancy in Kashmir. It’s through dialogue."
He also came up with an “out of the box" solution for bridging the trust deficit between India and Pakistan—a civil nuclear power generation plant on the border “mutually manned by Pakistan and India.
Half the energy goes to Pakistan, half the energy goes to India. We are thinking of how we can interlock each other so that we are forced to rather than be hostile, how can we have something that can benefit each other and which will lock us into trade and mutual progress," Khan said in his 2013 interview.
According to Christine Fair, Khan has undergone a makeover.“Khan has been a politician for decades, but his earlier electoral performances had been disappointing," she wrote in her Foreign Affairs piece.
“To make matters worse, he had previously refused to play Pakistan’s political game of alliance forging and deal making and had taken rhetorical stances against the military, accusing the army of “selling our blood for dollars" in an apparent criticism of its relationship with the US.
Since 2013, however, Khan seems to have accepted the reality that he lacked the national appeal to win on his own without the support of the army. He began to praise the military, and the military reciprocated," she said.
Syed Ata Hasnain, a former commanding officer of the 15 corps in Kashmir, is of the view that “if a real difference has to be made in the context of India-Pakistan relations, then early enough Khan must indicate what sort of action he intends to take against those radical elements long considered Pakistan’s strategic assets against India."
“Given his inclination towards supporting many of these radical elements, can he be expected to do anything transformational towards addressing India’s concern on terror? Hardly likely, at least definitely not in the near future as India prepares to for its own elections in 2019. Any such attempt will be perceived negatively within Pakistan and will remain against the Pakistan army’s carefully crafted strategy. It will also add to Modi’s popularity in India—something that Pakistan would consider completely counter to its interests," Hasnain said.
The way forward
While Khan may be a new face with no baggage, it’ll be a while before India decides to do business with him. For one, New Delhi seems to have decided that “managing relations" with Pakistan is the best way forward.
This is because New Delhi seems to have concluded that civilian governments in Pakistan do not really have powers to engage India.
So the best case scenario is “manage ties" till Pakistan changes its mindset vis-a-vis India as New Delhi focuses on building better ties with others on its periphery—Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and others.
The real test possibly comes later this year—when Pakistan is expected to host the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or Saarc summit.
Islamabad was forced to call off the summit in 2016 when India, followed by Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan said they wouldn’t attend the summit due to Pakistan’s stance on terrorism. This came within days of the September 2016 attack on the Uri military garrison in Kashmir in which 19 Indian soldiers were killed in a terrorist attack.
“If India decides to go for the Summit, it will be a signal that New Delhi is taking ties a step forward from managing relations with Pakistan," said a Western diplomat stationed in New Delhi.
“And who knows if that could be an opening for a step up in engagement?" the diplomat said. Clearly, given the multiplicity of variables in the India-Pakistan relationship, it’s difficult to place a bet on what will happen in the future. The only thing one can say with certainty is there will be unpredictable times ahead.