Imran Khan as Pakistan PM: India need not take PTI chief's insincere 'peace overtures' seriously

Imran Khan's victory speech has been a cause for much debate, internal and external. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief, who is poised to take over as Pakistan's 19th prime minister, outlined his vision for 'naya Pakistan' in a televised address on Thursday where he also offered a slice of his foreign policy roadmap. Among other nations, he also spent a few words on India. What should we make of Imran’s ‘vision’? Does he offer anything new? Can he bring about a thaw in frozen bilateral ties? How may the two countries get along under his tenure as the prime minister?

To discuss these questions, first let us recount Imran’s exact words (delivered in Urdu) to the extent that some of it is not lost in translation. Paraphrases won’t work here.

"I was saddened in the last few days, how the Hindustani media portrayed me as a Bollywood film villain. It seemed like Hindustan feared everything bad would happen if Imran Khan came into power. I am that Pakistani who has the most familiarity with Hindustan, I have been all over that country (for cricket, of course). I think it will be very good for all of us if we have good relations with Hindustan. We need to have trade ties, and the more we engage in trading, the more both nations will benefit."

"Unfortunately, the biggest core issue between us is Kashmir. The situation in Kashmir (is alarming) … And the people of Kashmir have suffered massive human rights violations. That (rights violations) is the inevitable outcome anywhere in the world when army goes to civilian areas. The Kashmiris have suffered a lot in the last 30 years."

“We should attempt to resolve this. Pakistani and Hindustani leadership should sit at a table and try to fix this problem. It's not going anywhere. If we continue the blame-game and assume 'Pakistan does this' and what happens in Balochistan happens due to Hindustan, we will keep coming back to square one."

“If Hindustan’s leadership is ready, we are ready to improve ties with India. If you take one step towards us, we will take two steps towards you. Let's take the first step at least. Till now it has remained a one-sided relationship. Right now, Pakistan is blamed for all acts of terrorism anywhere in the world."

 Imran Khan as Pakistan PM: India need not take PTI chiefs insincere peace overtures seriously

File image of PTI chief Imran Khan. AP

"I say this with conviction, this will be the most important thing for the subcontinent… for both countries… to have a friendship. And we should fix our main issue (implying Kashmir) through dialogue.”

The first thing that we should observe is that in multiple references to the country, Imran never says 'India'. It is always ‘Hindustan’. We shall discuss presently why this is significant and not because he was speaking in Urdu.

More important than what Imran said in his roughly three-minute India-specific speech, is to note what he did not say. He mentions the word ‘terrorism’ only once, and that too while using it as a victim card to absolve Pakistan’s role in fostering the global scourge. He does not mention even once the issue of ‘cross-border terrorism’ — the bone of contention between the two nations and the only issue over which there is bipartisan consensus in India — no mean feat given India’s fiercely competitive multi-party democracy.

Imran cannot be so naïve that he is unaware of the fact that any rapprochement with India is impossible unless ‘cross-border terrorism’ is not addressed. It is at the front and center of the problem. There can be no ‘talks’ with Pakistan if it continues to sponsor, manufacture, nurture and then export terror from across the border. Why did Imran, who solemnly called for developing “good” and “friendly” bilateral ties, fail to mention the single biggest cause of India-Pakistan animosity?

There can be only one conclusion, and it takes us to the heart of the reason why Imran’s ‘well-meaning’ words are little more than meaningless posturing. It gives credence to global allegations and condemnation that Pakistan's new prime minister-elect is an army puppet and the country’s powerful military fixed the pitch to clear his way.

Imran’s rehearsed words on India on Thursday was straight out of the Rawalpindi playbook. He didn’t mention cross-border terror because Pakistan military wouldn’t want him to. Terrorism lies at the heart of Pakistan’s vexed relationships with India, Afghanistan and even the US, but Imran, while soliciting “equal” and “friendly” relationships with these nations, conveniently left the issue unaddressed.

Talks between India and Pakistan remain suspended due to terror. The Donald Trump administration has withheld all security aid to Pakistan until it stops aiding and abetting terrorists and dismantles terror factories on its soil. Afghanistan has demanded that instead of providing safe haven for Taliban terrorists, Pakistan should take action against them.

As Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Alyssa Ayres writes in this blog, “For US leaders, improvement in US-Pakistan ties will be possible once a clear commitment to tackling terrorism becomes more apparent. This will surely also rank as priority number one for Indian interlocutors as well; and for Afghans, too. Unfortunately for all three countries, it’s also the issue that Khan, a civilian politician widely described as the military’s “favored” candidate this time around, would be least likely to confront.”

Imran’s duplicity is further exposed by the stance he takes on Balochistan. He accuses India of violating the human rights of Kashmiris but has nothing to say on the troubled province, where Pakistan air force has dropped bombs on its “own people” to crush insurgency movements. The army has carried on atrocities for decades while the domestic media has preferred to look the other way. (See here, here and here).

Imran was being duplicitous and insincere while trying to appear as earnest. His ‘speech’ on foreign policy was bereft of any policy directions, strategic heft or substance, leave alone granular details of his priorities beyond some boilerplate lines on ‘peace’ and ‘development’. This is a man deeply aware of the boundaries of his power and unwilling to step out of his crease. Imran might not be a keen student of history, but his instincts would have told him that Pakistani generals do not shy away from severing the jugular veins of pliant leaders if they try to grow too big for their boots.

In calculating our strategies vis-à-vis the new civilian government in Pakistan, or responding to his “overtures” of peace, we must be mindful of the limitations of Imran’s power. The real receptacle of power in Pakistan is the military establishment, and it is not in the establishment’s interests to ‘normalise’ relationship with India.

This is because normalising of ties will require significant readjustments from both sides. Given the way Pakistan military benefits from an adversarial position with India — which helps it maintain primacy over a weak Pakistani state — it is not in Rawalpindi’s interest to resolve the core conflict.

The army, which since Pakistan’s inception has been the biggest, most structured and disciplined institution, has strived to maintain its hegemony by painting ‘Hindustan’ (the land of the Hindus) as the existential and ideological threat. The military has accordingly fashioned itself as the rock-solid custodian and protector of Pakistan, the Islamic State.

Imran has never deviated from this script. It is not without reason that during the televised address, he repeatedly referred to India as ‘Hindustan’, a sort of acknowledgement and obeisance to the army and a dog whistle to his base. This is also why we should not take Imran’s words seriously. If civilian leaders try to strengthen relationship with India, then it will diminish the role of the army and squeeze the benefits that it reaps from a conflict economy.

Faisel Pervaiz elaborates in Stratfor Worldview how the army reserves for itself a heavy economic role to go with its political intervention by controlling “more than $20.7 billion in assets, including more than 12 million acres of public land.” The military “is also a conduit for current and retired officers to serve in a range of industries, such as banking, manufacturing, farming and insurance.”

Similarly, the army uses terror assets in foreign and security policy because it further reinforces its role in Pakistan’s polity. A truly democratic political system with strong civilian leadership will not need to depend heavily on terror assets to achieve political ends. There have been signs during this election that the military has been trying to mainstream some of its terror assets into the political system though final results show that the project hasn’t really taken off, yet.

India would therefore do well to ignore Imran’s “call for peace” as a non-serious gesture. We should note that Imran wasn’t doing us a favour, or even remotely doing anything new. This is a well-worn tactic of Pakistan civilian leaders. Former president Asif Ali Zardari wanted “constructive, sustained ties with India” in 2012.

Nawaz Sharif, soon after taking over as Pakistan prime minister in 2013, went to the United Nations to declare that he wants a “new beginning” in India. Sharif’s problem was that he took script handed to him by the Army too seriously.

This, however, doesn’t answer why Imran appeared to court India. Two reasons may be considered. One, Imran was trying to lower the temperature in bilateral ties — not so much to create a conducive atmosphere for talks but to prevent any hostility in ties as he goes about his job of delivering on the promises he had made to his electorate. He was trying to buy some insurance. Two, in that ‘overture’, the reference to Kashmir was a pointer to the Army that he won’t take a step forward towards India without the military’s consent.

This should preclude any possibility of improvement in bilateral ties. The relationship, at best, may fall into a state of benign neglect because there is likely to be less civil-military tension under his tenure. Imran could be the first Pakistani prime minister to complete his term.

Updated Date: Jul 27, 2018 19:25:32 IST