Monday, May 20, 2019

Old wine in a new bottle or the start of something new?

By Dr. Sumeet Bhasin


As Imran Khan takes over as the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, there is renewed hope that the relationship between India and Pakistan might start improving going forward. There is no denial that peace in the region is of utmost priority for all governments but this would require stringent state action by Pakistan on cross border terrorism.

Mr. Khan has already stated that he wishes to have “Friendly” relations with India and that mutual dialogue needs to be initiated to solve the problem of Kashmir. The problem of Kashmir is actually a hypothetical problem in the minds of the leaders of Pakistan. The major bone of contention between the Government of India and Government of Pakistan is Terrorism and not Kashmir. Kashmir is anyway a domestic issue of India in which any external interference of Pakistan is neither required nor will it be accepted.

Further, given that there is global consensus that the Pakistan elections were not fair, and the statements by Mr. Khan, it is apparent that the military leadership did assist in Mr. Khan assuming the office of the Prime Minister of Pakistan through a rigged election. But the electoral politics of Pakistan is of little concern to me as what truly matters is how will Indo-Pak relationship evolve over the next two or three years. I have severe reservations about a leader chosen via rigged elections based upon the preferences of the military leadership. Such a leader may not be able to deliver much and in fact may only lead to a further deterioration in the Indo-Pak relations.

It is however, obvious that any major change in the dynamics of Indo-Pak equation can only be expected after a while as we get a better idea about his government’s stand on various issues but I still don’t think one should be too optimistic about a change in the Indo-Pak relationship or even about a change in governance of Pakistan. Mr. Khan’s views about global geo-politics are shaped up in accordance with the views of military leadership of Pakistan, which is why he said little about the Pakistan Air Force bombing its own civilians in Baluchistan. He mentioned Kashmir and talked about resolving the issue through a mutual dialogue but a mutual meaningful dialogue would require cross border terrorism to stop: and he said nothing on that. Further, his action on cross-border terrorism may not be as stringent as desired by India given that he sees Pakistan as a victim and not instigator of such heinous crimes. To put the record straight, common people of Pakistan are victims while the Nation State of Pakistan is the instigator of such crimes and he is about to sit in the highest office of the Nation State of Pakistan. Thus, the buck stops with him to do something about the victims which are not just people of India but also the common citizens of his country that his government is supposed to represent.

Though, there is one advantage with Mr. Khan being at the helm of affairs: being someone chosen by the military leadership of Pakistan, the advantage with any dialogue with him is that it would have both the civilian leadership and the military leadership of Pakistan on the same page. This resolves the dilemma of “Who to engage with in Pakistan” which persisted since quite some time now. That ways, a breakthrough can be expected in some minor areas of contention but to have a complete change of Indo-Pak equation would require Pakistan to see India as a partner in development of Pakistan rather than a threat. More so, it would require Pakistan to stop allowing its land to be used as a safe heaven for anti-India activities and align its strategic interests with the interests of Indian government in matters of International Diplomacy and Politics. Doing so would require immense political capital on part of Imran Khan, something that he may not have as he may not have the requisite public support or institutional support to change the conventional way in which most Pakistani institutions be it their military, or courts or media sees India.

However, given that Mr. Khan has spend adequate amount of time in India and that he’s always received warmth and affection from the people of India, if he truly wants to create a “naya Pakistan” it would behoove him to start by understanding that the reason why there is a contention between the two nations is Pakistan and its attitude to look at India as a threat rather than a partner. The possibility from mutual cooperation are immense as both nations stand to gain if they assist one another but for that, it is he who needs to take the first step to bridge the trust deficit between India and Pakistan.

He said if India takes one step, they’re willing to take two but given the historical context, it is he who needs to take a few steps to ensure that a meaningful dialogue can be initiated. India has time and again taken the first step, be it inviting all SAARC head of state for our current Prime Minister’s swearing in ceremony or our current Prime Minister’s visit to Pakistan but time and again, the muted response from Pakistan and its inaction on issues such as cross border terrorism has led to the derailment of talks and the peace process.

Despite assurances from then President of Pakistan, General Musharraf that Pakistan will no longer allow its land to be used for cross-border terrorism, there is little action against terrorists operating within Pakistan. Repeated assurances from Pakistan and little inaction has led to this trust deficit and if Mr. Khan indeed wants to mend Indo-Pak relations, a good starting step would be to hand over the terrorists that operate from Pakistan and are on India’s Most Wanted List for a trial in the Indian Court of Law. Such a gesture would be instrumental in bridging the trust deficit and initiating a long term mutual dialogue for peace and prosperity in the region. India is always willing to support its partners and foster long stranding relations with each one of them so now the question is does Imran Khan have what it takes to improve Indo-Pak relations? Only time shall tell.


Dr. Sumeet Bhasin is currently the Director of Public Policy Research Center, New Delhi.

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