Let’s keep eyes on the ball

Imran from Rawalpindi end

Imran Khan is poised to take over as Pakistan’s prime minister on August 11. He addressed the country a day after the elections when trends indicated that he was decisively ahead of the others. He outlined his vision for Pakistan and also dwelt on his country’s relations with a group of select countries, including India. While expressing anguish at his portrayal by the Indian media as some kind of a “Bollywood villain,” Khan said that he was “one Pakistani with maximum contacts in India” and had travelled extensively in India because of cricket. Khan expressed a desire for bilateral trade to take place but at the same time emphasised the “core issue of Kashmir” and also the “violation” of human rights of the Kashmiris. He also called for dialogue and stated that if India took one step, Pakistan would take two towards resolving bilateral issues.

There is nothing new in Khan’s message to India. His words reflect traditional Pakistani positions on bilateral issues. His focus on trade though was noteworthy for Pakistani politicians seldom do so upfront. However, by entering the Kashmir “core issue” caveat, he implied that the former would not proceed without the resolution of the latter. Substantially, this position again was not new. Thus, behind all the rhetorical flourishes of his remarks, there was no fresh approach.

An important point is that in calling for dialogue, Khan did not give any indication of a willingness to abandon the path of confrontation through the pursuit of terrorism against India. Given Khan’s affinity with the Pakistani army, it is not surprising that he was essentially articulating the army’s policy towards India.

Over the past year, Pakistani generals have given indications of a desire to resume full bilateral dialogue between the two countries, without a commitment to stop the use of terrorist groups against India.  

For the past two years, the Modi government has refused to begin a full dialogue unless Pakistan gives up terrorism. At the same time, it has not shied away from bilateral contacts of a humanitarian nature or in the ambit of routine diplomatic activity. The militaries are also in touch through a weekly conversation. The two countries are also engaged at the International Court of Justice on the Kulbhushan Jadhav case which, according to present indications, will only come up after the Indian elections next year.

Significantly, the national security advisers of the two countries were in contact. Pakistan’s NSA Lt. Gen. Nasser Janjua resigned when the caretaker government took over before elections there. He gave an indication of what was happening in the NSA channel during a seminar in Islamabad some weeks ago. A prominent Pakistani columnist’s report is worthy of being quoted in full, especially because of the absence of an Indian version of the NSA talks. He wrote:

“It was an interesting revelation by the former Pakistani NSA when he described details of his interaction with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval. He said that they “did not want to win arguments against each other”—rather they discussed how to reduce the trust deficit between their two countries. They agreed that they cannot win a war against each other and it was better to realise this and act now before the next generation took over and held them responsible for their failures. However, this frank discussion has not resulted in a resumption of the peace process”.

Clearly, Doval and Janjua have held extensive discussions on India-Pakistan relations. Did these cover the Kashmir issue? The government would do well to clarify the substance of what took place in the NSA channel. It would also be interesting to see if Khan will appoint Janjua so that continuity is maintained in this channel.

While the Indian media gave saturated coverage to the Pakistani elections, the government wisely steered clear of the fact that the Pakistan army and judiciary ensured that Khan batted on a very easy election wicket. Between the two, they took the principal player — Nawaz Sharif — out of the match, ensuring Khan’s success. India has also ignored the opposition’s complaint that the election was rigged. It is not for India to officially comment on this issue. In a clear gesture, Modi called Khan to congratulate him and “expressed the hope that democracy will take deeper roots in Pakistan”. He also “reiterated his vision for peace and development in South Asia”.

Wait and watch

At this stage, not much should be read into the Modi call. Earlier, the Indian official statement called for a “prosperous and progressive” Pakistan. The latter word can be construed to mean that a Pakistan in the grip of religious extremism is not desirable. However, these words also do not mean much for bilateral ties. India did well to stress that it hopes that Khan (without naming him) would work for a “safe, secure and developed South Asia, free of terror and violence”.

Reports had earlier indicated that Khan was to invite some prominent Indian cricket contemporaries of his and Bollywood personalities for his swearing in. Clearly, this was on an individual basis. Perhaps, these invitations were extended in personal conversations or exchange of messages. Now, it seems, that there will be no invitations. This may cause some embarrassment to these individuals, especially the voluble Navjot Sidhu, but it is not a matter of consequence for bilateral ties.  

The real issue is: should India be willing to renew full bilateral dialogue at this stage or wait and watch to see if the Pakistani army, now that its desire to oust Nawaz Sharif and bring in Khan has been fulfilled, seeks to modify its approach on terrorism. There is no reason to believe that it will do so.

India should coolly wait and watch to see how the Khan-army equation unfolds. In any event, the Modi government must continue with the current approach that Pakistan has to give up terror if it wants full dialogue with India. If it does not, it will only feed Pakistani prejudices about India.

(The writer is former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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Let’s keep eyes on the ball

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