DIGITAL ARTICLE | COMMENTARIES by: Tridivesh Singh Maini
Many analysts, both internal and external, believed Pakistan’s recent election would be a tough battle, with Imran Khan’s PTI (Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaaf) having a slight edge as a consequence of support from Pakistan’s deep state). Surveys also predicted a close fight, with the importance of undecided voters highlighted, again with the PTI having a slight edge.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan with his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, despite both facing jail terms, was thought of by many as a gamble that could have been a game changer in Punjab. Sharif left his ailing wife Kulsoom Nawaz in London, and many also believed this would help his PML-N party secure sympathy votes.
Ultimately, the PTI romped home quite comfortably and emerged as the single largest party with 119 seats, while PML-N was a distant second with 63 seats and PPP in third. PML-N, however, did emerge as the single largest party in the provincial elections.
Khan’s India Policy
While there has been a lot of focus on the support that PTI has received from the army, there is also curiosity about what sort of policy Imran Khan will follow vis-à-vis India. It has been argued that the Indian establishment is not particularly comfortable with him as, unlike Sharif, he may not challenge Pakistan army’s India policy.
The Indian High Commission in Islamabad is said to have been in touch with some of his close advisors (every government keeps channels of communications open with all political forces, and there is nothing unusual about this) in the run up to the elections.
At this stage, it is very tough to predict Khan’s precise approach toward India. On the one hand he has made belligerent statements against New Delhi in the past, accusing Nawaz Sharif of being soft on the country.
“Our premier [Nawaz Sharif], instead of raising [his voice] voice [for Kashmiris], is busy in making his business flourish there,” Khan said in 2016.
On another occasion, he took a dig at Nawaz Sharif, saying that not every Pakistani was more concerned about his business than his country.
One day before the polls, Khan said Nawaz Sharif was more concerned with India’s interests and was willing to discredit Pakistan’s army, which is why India preferred him.
How seriously should we take Khan’s rhetoric?
While it is true that in the past few elections, including Nawaz Sharif’s triumphs in 1997 and 2013, anti-India propaganda did not find much traction and it is not long since not just Khan, but also PML-N, indulged in anti-India rhetoric. This should not be taken seriously.
A retired Diplomat, who served in Pakistan, TCA Raghavan, also the author of People Next Door, aptly stated: “These statements are very common in Pakistan politics. We have to separate political rhetoric from what he actually does when he is in power.”
No substantial headway can be expected over the next few months between both countries, given the mammoth geo-political and economic challenges that Khan is facing. On the Indian side too, no grand gesture can be expected, given the fact its own that elections are to be held in May 2019. Backdoor diplomacy, off course cannot be ruled out. A meeting between Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is also a possibility.
In the long run, however, there could be some movement forward. In his first address to the Pakistani people, Khan spoke in favor of resolving contentious issues through dialogue, while also pitching for closer economic linkages and jointly combatting poverty.
In a media interview recently, he said: “If you have a good relationship with India, it opens up trade, and trade with a huge market. Both countries would benefit.”
PTI has made strong inroads into Punjab, and the business community of the province has been in favor of closer economic ties with India for some time.
Familiarity with India
Khan, during his address to the Pakistani people, also spoke about his familiarity with India, as well as personal ties through his cricketing career.
In 2015, during a visit to India, he met with Prime Minister Modi and backed peace initiatives between both countries. He also met with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who he praised, and in the past he has had kind words for Nitish Kumar’s governance.
Some of Khan’s close advisors, such as former Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and PTI Vice President of PTI Shah Mahmood Qureshi (who also served as Foreign Minister during the PPP government led by Asif Ali Zardari), are experienced and familiar with India. Kasuri has numerous personal friendships in India, and Qureshi, as an agriculturalist, was president of the Farmers Association of Pakistan and has strong links in Indian Punjab.
Pakistan is facing numerous internal challenges and it is virtually impossible to predict how things will pan out in the context of India-Pakistan ties. Much will depend, however, upon the intent of the Pakistan army, ties between Khan and the army, and the role that China plays in the region.
While Khan’s initial overtures should be welcomed, it is best to wait and watch and not prophesize, as far as India-Pakistan relations are concerned.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a policy analyst, commentator and writer. He is an assistant professor at the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, and a visiting fellow at AIDIA, Kathmandu.