New Delhi: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday stirred up a controversy by making remarks seen as dabbling in India’s domestic politics in the middle of an election campaign in the run-up to national polls scheduled for May next year.

Speaking at the inauguration of the Kartarpur corridor linking two popular Sikh gurdwaras in India and Pakistan, Khan, who was described as “yaar dildaar (dear friend)" by Indian cricketer-turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, credited him for pushing through the idea of opening the corridor—a long standing demand of Sikhs in India.

Describing the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan as the main issue between the two countries, Khan appeared to draw a comparison between Sidhu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“There are two kinds of politicians—one type who wins votes by spreading hatred and the second type who brings people together," Khan said. “I hope that it does not happen that we have to wait for Sidhu to become prime minister for India and Pakistan to become friends. I hope we get a leadership (who will try for peace) even before that," Khan said.

Khan’s comments and its timing are controversial, coming as they do in the middle of assembly elections in five states—Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Rajasthan and Mizoram.

The opening of the Kartarpur corridor—connecting the holy shrines of Dera Baba Nanak Sahib in Gurdaspur district in India with Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan—has attracted its fair share of controversies since the Indian cabinet cleared its opening last week.

While Modi likened the corridor to a possible bridge between India and Pakistan last week, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj on Wednesday discounted the prospect of the opening of the route leading to talks with Pakistan. Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh was quoted as saying that he had dissuaded Sidhu from going to Pakistan but he had gone nevertheless. Vice president Venkaiah Naidu speaking on Monday likened the corridor to “a path that opens new possibilities" but Singh warned Pakistan against the export of terrorism.

On Wednesday, Imran Khan said: “I think, Sidhu, you should contest elections here. People love you so much you will surely win here," Khan said. The reference was to the flak Sidhu received previously when he had visited Pakistan for Khan’s swearing-in ceremony after he embraced Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Bajwa. After Pakistan agreed to the opening of the route, Sidhu had attributed it as the positive outcome of his encounter with Bajwa.

Khan’s reference to Kashmir was slammed by the foreign ministry while Sidhu’s remarks were criticized by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“Pakistan is reminded that it must fulfil its international obligations and take effective and credible action to stop providing shelter and all kind of support to cross border terrorism from territories under its control," the foreign ministry said.  

Congress did not comment on Khan’s remarks.

Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar on his part slammed Sidhu.

“When Pakistan is indulging in all kinds of terror activities & cross-border terrorism, one needs to be very cautious about it," the minister said. “The most objectionable thing in Sidhu’s Pakistan trip is that he referred to various domestic issues which is not done in any diplomatic relations. He praised Imran Khan more than what was due and praised him to the hilt," Javadekar said.

The comments reflected ones made earlier Wednesday by Sushma Swaraj who delinked a resumption of peace talks with Pakistan with the opening of the Kartarpur corridor. “The moment Pakistan stops terrorist activities in India, the dialogue can start. But the dialogue is not only connected with Kartarpur corridor," Swaraj said.

Gyan Verma contributed to this story.

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