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Imran Khan needs the Army’s nod to improve ties with India

Can he translate the goodwill that he enjoys within the security establishment in addition to some shared ideals on Pakistan’s relations with countries such as the United States into an acceptable-to-GHQ engagement with India?

analysis Updated: Aug 20, 2018 09:20 IST
Imtiaz Gul
Imtiaz Gul
Imran Khan,Pakistan,Pakistan government
If conversations with highly placed officials within the security apparatus were any indicators, Imran Khan enjoys a goodwill on this count like no PM before him(REUTERS)

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Imran Khan on July 30 to congratulate him on his electoral victory, he was probably responding to the latter’s victory speech in which he promised “I really want to fix our ties, you take one step forward, we will take two”.

What followed this brief telephonic conversation was the release of 30 Indian prisoners in Pakistan and seven Pakistani prisoners in India ahead of their respective Independence days.

Now, as he prepares to shepherd a PTI-led government after his swearing in as the 22nd Prime Minister on Saturday in the face of an outnumbered and disjointed Opposition’s noise around “manipulated election, stolen mandate ”, multiple socio-economic and foreign policy challenges await him.

The real challenges, nevertheless, are far more serious; besides the massive looming balance of payments crisis that Khan inherits from Nawaz Sharif’s party, he faces a formidable task on the external front. The biggest of all, it seems, is linked to relations with India, which currently largely shapes the US-Allies opinion on Pakistan. Besides, Prime Minister Modi is perceived here in Pakistan as“hell-bent on squeezing Pakistan into submission”. Regardless of whether the perception is right or not, Khan remains seized with the idea of resuscitating ties with the entire neighbourhood, including those with India because this is so critical for Pakistan in general, Fawad Chaudhry, one of Khan’s trusted aides told HT.

For staying this course, Khan, however, will also have to look to Rawalpindi, south of the capital, where the mighty military is headquartered.

And if conversations with two highly-placed officials within the security apparatus were any indication, Khan enjoys goodwill on this count like no PM before him.

“Imran Khan has spoken of two steps but we would say he should take four if India takes one step,” said a three-star general, who cannot be named for obvious reasons.

He was echoing the sentiment that his boss, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of army staff, had shared with leading journalists and anchor persons in a marathon off-the-record chat back in March.

When his attention was drawn to the widespread perception that the military in general is averse to good relations with India, Bajwa instantly posed a counter-question: who does not want good relations; only fools would dream of insulating themselves against neighbours in this age of inter-dependence.

The only takeaway for us from this meeting on India was that nobody really opposed good ties on an equal footing with India, and that Pakistan cannot afford missteps after “fighting monsters for over a decade” ( a reference to the war on terror that has resulted in more than 65,000 casualties).

The fact that both Khan and the military boast a more or less similar nationalistic outlook perhaps augurs well for a possible civil-military convergence on India. Both reflect the same vision for a more region-centric foreign policy, which is in sync with China’s much-touted notion of regional connectivity, but obviously not to the exclusion of India.

Circumstances have put Khan at the cusp, perhaps, of a watershed moment for the country. But the big question is: will he be able to translate the goodwill that he enjoys within the security establishment in addition to some shared ideals on the country’s relations with countries such as the United States into an acceptable-to-GHQ engagement with India? This hinges on two caveats. First, Khan might well achieve this elusive goal only if he did this in an inclusive way, unlike his predecessors, who often annoyed the military establishment by acting behind its back, unadvisable in view of the geopolitical sensitivities that have surrounded Pakistan since the Soviet-Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the US-led response to it. Second, Khan’s promised “two steps”, nevertheless, depends on when and how soon PM Modi takes the long withheld first step.

Imtiaz Gul is an author and heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 20, 2018 09:20 IST