India should ignore Imran Khan’s virtue-signalling: No 'talks' possible unless Pakistan addresses cross-border terror

In cricket, the reverse swing is a high art. It requires talent and practice. When the ball gets old and stops swinging in the air, one side of the cherry is roughed up a little so that it starts swinging again — only in the reverse, causing batsmen deep distress. Imran Khan was a master of reverse swing during his playing days. If his call for “dialogue” and “trade” with India is any indication, he hasn’t forgotten the art.

Imran might be a freshly minted prime minister of ‘Naya Pakistan’, but he is a battered old cherry in politics. He bounced around the rocky terrain of Pakistani politics for two decades with little success. No one took him seriously. But Imran gritted his teeth and persevered as he did during his student days, slowly adjusting to cricket, climate and life in England.

Two decades is a long time in politics. It is enough to teach valuable lessons to those willing to learn. Imran eventually rang in a series of changes on the personal and professional front. He felt that to get closer to power in Pakistan, he must shed his flamboyance and (at least publicly) gravitate towards religious conservatism.

The globe-trotting, Oxford bred Imran’s curious private and political choices reflect this trend. He started pandering to the right-wing extremist political constituency in Pakistan and tapped into popular anti-Americanism sentiment through invective rhetoric against US ‘war on terror’. The Donald Trump administration’s series of decisions to penalise Pakistan for its duplicity on terrorism gave further ammo.

His stance on India underwent a sea change. Imran had proposed a joint civil nuclear programme to solve both countries’ energy shortage. That was in 2013. In 2018, Imran knew better. During the election campaign that propelled him to power, he ran a vicious anti-Indian campaign. He sprang elaborate conspiracy theories and termed his political rivals as “Indian agents”. He warmed up to the gaggle of ultra-Islamist parties (Pakistan military establishment’s effort at mainstreaming terror groups) and started courting the country’s most powerful institution — its army. The ball started to reverse. Imran’s fortunes brightened.

File image of Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. AP

File image of Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. AP

Corruption was another one of his key poll planks. Imran painted his rivals as the epitome of graft (with some help from the judiciary and military establishment) and projected himself as the ‘honest crusader’ who will end the culture of loot and bring glory to Pakistan. Imran has been at pains to proclaim that personal probity of leaders is enough to nurse the country back to health.

This may satisfy his urban, pro-military base but an oversimplification of ills points to two things. One, Imran is unlikely to try and implement the structural and ideological changes that Pakistan urgently needs. Two, he would rather bank on false narratives to double down on denial.

As Hudson Institute director and former Pakistan ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani writes in The Print, “Fulmination against corruption has become the economic equivalent of conspiracy theories explaining the country’s insecurity. In popular sentiment, just as conspiracies have made Pakistan weak and vulnerable, its destined economic greatness has been thwarted by corruption, not poor policy choices… Even after Khan has improved garbage collection and put all his ‘corrupt’ opponents on trial, Pakistan’s debts won’t see a drop and exports and remittances will continue to fall short.”

But even as a ‘crusader against corruption’, Imran’s image is bogus. He ran a relentless campaign against politicians whom he accused of being corrupt but showed no qualms in tying up with them later to bring votes.

As Mehreen Zahra-Malik writes in Foreign Policy, “Despite Khan’s famous stubbornness, he’s been quite willing to ditch former loyalists such as Ali Muhammad Khan and Shaukat Yousafzai in favor of more electable candidates such as Sardar Ghulam Abbas and Khusro Bakhtiar to boost his party’s chances. However sincere his positions may be, it is clear that he is capable of intelligent, even cynical, calculations about power.”

It is in this context that we must place Imran’s hand of ‘friendship’ towards India. Imran is no friend of India. Above all else, he is in no position to change or even slightly alter Pakistan’s security and foreign policies that remain firmly within the domain of the powerful military.

It is delusional to assume that a man who has rode piggyback on the army’s shoulders to power will be able to — much less willing to — militate against the military establishment or challenge its hegemony in shaping Pakistan’s foreign policy. If this bit is clear, what should India talk about with prime minister Imran, who in reality is just the glorified mayor of Pakistan? What should be the agenda? Clearing the garbage on the streets of Karachi?

Moreover, a wafer-thin Parliamentary majority (176 votes in 342-member Lower House) will ensure that Imran remains forever beholden to the army’s machinations. Conversely, Rawalpindi will be happy to have ushered in a civilian government that will remain tied to its bootstraps. How does this arrangement affect foreign policy, or is relevant to the debate about India-Pakistan relations?

Nawaz Sharif, in his third stint as prime minister, enjoyed greater numerical strength in Parliament compared to Imran. The PML-N chief still failed to effect even a slight change in Pakistan’s stance towards India. The army sabotaged his every effort to normalise bilateral ties. Sharif eventually paid the price for trying to alter the army’s strategy of using terror as a foreign policy tool.

When a relatively powerful civilian administration failed to normalise ties with India, what are the chances of a weaker administration succeeding in that mission? That is, assuming, that a leader who has been “selected” by the army wants to suddenly turn against his all-powerful benefactor. The chances are negligible.

On the contrary, the army will be in a greater position to arm-twist Imran on India. In another piece for The Washington Post, Mehreen Zahra-Mailk writes, “If he (Imran) has indeed come into power with the help of the military, and there is much evidence that he has, then it is likely that the military will want its pound of flesh. He will need its help in finding allies and cutting deals, and the military will want even more space to control foreign and economic policy (with a 1.1 trillion rupee defense budget out of a total budget outlay of 5.9 trillion, no one cares more than the Pakistan army about what happens to the economy).”

It is certain that Imran will be disinterested in addressing the issues that plague bilateral relations in all sincerity. His recent “peace overture” towards India is the wily, old Imran bowling some reverse-swinging deliveries at New Delhi.

In his tweet, calling for resumption of “trade and dialogue” with India, Imran deftly sidestepped the only issue that must be addressed before all other issues are brought to the table — Pakistan’s role in nurturing, sponsoring and exporting terror to India.

Behind the virtue-signaling lies Imran’s attempt to shift the onus of resuming talks (and normalising ties) on India. It is a clever move aimed at absolving Pakistan’s crimes and pretending that all that stops the nuclear neighbours from talking to each other is New Delhi’s “obtuseness”. In floating the narrative, Imran no doubt feels that virtue-signaling on dialogue will earn him a few brownie points in Washington. The former cricketer (perhaps willfully) forgets that talks cannot resume unless the precondition is met. The terms are clear.

In the congratulatory letter sent to Islamabad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stressed on the need to make the Indian subcontinent “free of terror and violence”, which remains India’s core position on talks. In the letter, according to a report in The Indian Express, Modi “recalled their telephone conversation (with Imran), in which they spoke of their shared vision to bring peace, security and prosperity in the Indian subcontinent, in order to make it free of terror and violence, and to focus on development”.

On terror, Imran’s silence has spoken louder than words. It reminds India (or ought to) that there has been no change in Pakistan’s fundamental position on terror. It once again underlines the truism that change of guard in Pakistan’s civilian administration has no bearing on bilateral ties.

To quote from ORF senior fellow Sushant Sareen’s piece in DailyO, “There is absolutely nothing on the ground to suggest any change in Pakistan’s policy, viciousness, virulence, or pugnacity towards India. In fact, by allowing internationally proscribed terrorist organisations like Lashkar-e-Taiba to contest the general elections in violation of the commitments under the UNSC resolutions and FATF, and turning a blind eye to the huge facility being constructed by the Jaish-e-Mohammad in South Punjab, the message the Pakistanis have been sending is that India can stuff its policy on ‘talks and terror cannot go together’.”

Short of acknowledging the core issue, “dialogue process” can only mean one thing. Pakistan wants to start “talks” with India on Kashmir on its own terms. In Imran’s first televised address following election victory, his identification of Kashmir as the “core issue” and focus on “human rights violations” indicates that the Naya Pakistan founder will throw Pakistan army’s tired, old playbook towards India.

But Imran’s 'reverse swing' goes further. His address showed a willingness to equate Pakistan’s subversive terror policy and asymmetric war against India on Kashmir with its fictitious narrative about India’s involvement in Balochistan. In his rants against Pakistan being the “victim” of terrorism was an attempt to seek equanimity with India on terror.

As former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal writes in Hindustan Times, “Khan is equating longstanding Pakistani support for terrorism against India with Pakistan’s concocted narrative about India’s activities in Baluchistan. His effort to evade responsibility on terrorism and making the issue reciprocal needs proper understanding: Pakistan wants parity with India even on culpability for terrorism.”

Imran’s compulsions in calling for resumption of trade isn’t difficult to understand. He has been handed a debt-ridden bankrupt country that is squeezed between a rock and a hard place. A choice has to be made between swallowing IMF’s bitter pill or go under more Chinese debt. He hopes to alleviate some pressure by improving trade ties. Imran must try harder. Genuine rapprochement is impossible amid duplicity and doublespeak. Sorry Imran, your reverse swing won’t work here.


Updated Date: Aug 23, 2018 06:47 AM

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