No Need to Engage Imran Khan Prematurely
Amb Kanwal Sibal

The coverage that the Pakistani elections has received in our media has been out of proportion to our stakes in its outcome. Of course, the election process in a neighbouring country like Pakistan, with which our relations remain most difficult, should not be ignored. But the coverage here was excessive when one knows that whatever be the result, India-Pakistan ties will continue in the groove they are in. This degree of media attention also gives undeserved importance and credibility to the democratic process in Pakistan.

The elections just held have been manipulated by the Pakistan Army to ensure the defeat of Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML(N), and Imran Khan’s victory. The Army’s bid to weaken Nawaz Sharif politically and eventually prevent his re-election as prime minister has been apparent for some time. The Army’s hand in the virulent street campaigns against Nawaz Sharif led by Imran Khan along with the Canada-based cleric of Pakistani origin Tahir-ul Qadri is freely acknowledged. Later, when the Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi virtually besieged Islamabad, the Army’s conduct under General Sharif was politically suspect. It is widely accepted that the judicial verdict to remove Nawaz Sharif from the post of prime minister, on what would be highly flimsy grounds when measured against international legal norms, has been influenced by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The Army also ensured that Nawaz Sharif and his daughter remained in prison during election time to prevent any direct contact with the electorate, as alleged by a Pakistani High Court judge against whom the Army has sought an enquiry by the country’s Supreme Court. The Army seems to have ensured control over Imran Khan, who is mercurial and might want to be his own man, by not letting him win an absolute majority.

The soft-on-Pakistan lobbies in India have already started making out a case for an Indian initiative to engage Imran Khan. While there is always room for differences of opinion in a democratic country on the complex issue of our relationship with Pakistan, it remains a puzzle why these lobbies do not look at the long record of Pakistan’s hostile conduct against us: its bleeding of India through terrorism, exemplified most horrendously by the 2008 Mumbai attacks; its repudiation of signed agreements; its incessant harping on the Kashmir issue; its nuclear threats and so on. The Pakistan Army’s hold on the country’s foreign policy towards India and Afghanistan, besides nuclear issues, has been discussed ad nauseam, and yet the pro-Pakistan elements in India continue to make a case for taking initiatives to engage Pakistan as if a failure to do so is responsible for the present impasse, or if that initiative is taken, the stalemate in relations can be broken. The underlying assumption is that the responsibility for unblocking the relationship lies with India. In the process, India’s case that Pakistan must first credibly eschew terrorism is disregarded, which, unfortunately, is a terrible concession India made to Pakistan under the previous government by agreeing to formally break the link between terrorism and dialogue.

We demonstrate the political fragility of our approach towards Pakistan by treating platitudinous remarks by its political leadership, or media reports of some soft noises on India by its Army Chief, as political openings worth exploring. By this, we open ourselves to political manipulation by Pakistan. Its propagandists know which buttons to press to create pockets of public opinion in Pakistan’s favour, especially in our media and think tanks. We see this once again in our media commentaries construing Imran Khan’s remarks in his address to the nation as overtures towards India, when this is not the case at all. If he has put undue stress on Kashmir as the core issue between India and Pakistan that must be resolved in accordance with UN resolutions, it is to be dismissed as a standard Pakistani formulation that need not be taken too seriously. If he says Pakistan will move two steps if India takes one, it is overlooked that he is not being original but is repeating a line that Manmohan Singh has used when he was the prime minister, and the intention is to put the political ball in India’s court. He is implying that India is holding back in efforts to mend ties when actually it is Pakistan which repudiates any tangible step to respond to any of India’s concerns. The question is also not asked what step he wants India to take. Is it to agree to discuss Kashmir in accordance with Pakistan’s priorities? The dictates of common sense are being disregarded here, in that, in his address to the nation before assuming office, Imran Khan would hardly want to announce his India policy in detail, or seriously alienate New Delhi by launching a tirade against India and limit his diplomatic options prematurely, besides creating a very negative impression abroad. His focus on Kashmir is as far as he could go to convey his priority in engaging India, no doubt to the satisfaction of the Army and the extremist religious groups.

The larger picture in Pakistan is being lost sight of by those advocating an outreach to Imran Khan. He owes his victory to the armed forces and will essentially do their bidding in relation to India. Unless the Pakistani military, for whatever reason, decides to fundamentally review its policy of conserving a confrontational posture towards India, Imran Khan will have at best a limited room to manoeuvre. The platitudes he mouthed about Pakistan and India needing to trade with each other to reduce poverty and improve the economic well being of their peoples have been heard many times before. Nawaz Sharif had promised “non-discriminatory market access” to India to get around the emotive aspect of granting Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status, but failed to do so because of opposition from the Army and some economic lobbies at home. Since then, even if the Pakistani economy is in trouble, the massive investment in the Pakistani economy that China is promising under the banner of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would make Pakistan less pressed to normalise trade ties with India. If, however, Pakistan moves forward with India on the trade front in a serious manner, in time it would inevitably generate pressures to allow India transit facilities to Afghanistan, which, in turn, would allow India easier access to Central Asia. This would mean a radical revision of Pakistan’s strategy to as far as possible impede India’s access to this region. Here, Imran Khan’s own approach to Afghanistan could be even more problematic for India. He has been an apologist for the Taliban, holding America responsible for Afghanistan’s woes and even criticising the Pakistani army for collaborating with the US to wage anti-terrorist operations. All this earned Imran Khan the sobriquet of “Taliban Khan”. The Americans are aware of his role in blocking the movement of NATO supplies to Afghanistan in 2010. Imran Khan will give priority attention to Afghanistan, but his ideas on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and the role of the Taliban in that could throw up more problems for India.

Imran Khan’s own Islamic leanings and the increased radicalisation of Pakistani society are likely to make the process of normalisation of India-Pakistan ties even more accident prone. His links with Islamic groups, support for Pakistan’s iniquitous blasphemy laws, his aversion to the Ahmadiyya community, not to mention his marriage to a fully burqa clad ‘spiritual’ woman, do not make him a modern-minded leader, notwithstanding his lavish life-style and high-society western linkages, past and present. The mainstreaming of jihadi and sectarian parties in the electoral process increases their weight in Pakistani politics by giving their agendas respectability, even if they have not won any seats in the recently held elections. This will increase internal opposition to attempts to normalise relations with India.

There should no haste in engaging Imran Khan. Let him prove his credentials first as a leader that has the will and freedom to improve ties with India beyond diplomatic manoeuvring. He could well want to earn brownie points by expressing his readiness to begin a dialogue with India and putting the onus on New Delhi for rejecting his overture by insisting that Pakistan move first on the terrorism front, a position that would provoke high-sounding editorials in the Indian press about the Government ‘missing an opportunity’ and clichés about there being ‘no substitute to a dialogue’, that ‘one can choose friends but not neighbours’ and so on. This would be a propaganda gimmick on the newly elected leader’s part, particularly as neither he, who has made disagreeable remarks about Modi during the election campaign, nor the Pakistan Army, would want to strengthen the hands of Modi and the BJP before the 2019 general elections in India by handing them a notable foreign policy success.

(The author is a former Foreign Secretary. The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation)

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