India shouldn’t have any illusions about Imran Khan

Throwing the ball in India’s court for unblocking the impasse in ties implies denial of Pakistan’s involvement in terrorism

analysis Updated: Aug 17, 2018 19:55 IST
That Imran Khan described Kashmir as a core issue that needed resolution before other positives set in, and spoke about the violation of human rights of Kashmiris, has been papered-over by pro-Pakistani lobbies here as simply enunciating Pakistan’s standard position.(AP)

A new government in Pakistan does not mean a change in the country’s policy towards India, as our experience of the last 70 years shows. It would be a mistake to believe that under Imran Khan, our relationship could improve meaningfully.

Undue importance should not be attached to statements made for the occasion by Pakistani political or military leaders in favour of peaceful relations and trade to permit focus on shared issues of poverty removal and social welfare. Some circles clutch at such straws in their eagerness to engage with Pakistan and media debates only inflate the importance of sound-good banalities. The coherence of our Pakistan policy suffers.

In his victory address to the nation, Khan said all this and, as expected, some in India saw this as an opening to be explored. That Khan described Kashmir as a core issue that needed resolution before other positives set in, and spoke about the violation of human rights of Kashmiris, has been papered over by pro-Pakistani lobbies here as simply enunciating Pakistan’s standard position. The implication of Khan asking both countries to avoid playing the blame game, India on Kashmir and Pakistan on Baluchistan, has also escaped our soft-on-Pakistan opinion makers. 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.

The dialogue advocates in India see significance in Khan’s platitudinous remark that if India took one step Pakistan will take two, overlooking also that he plagiarised a Manmohan Singh line. The latter had a credible step by Pakistan on terrorism in mind while Khan wants an unconditional resumption of dialogue with Kashmir at the forefront. Assuming that we take this step, what will Pakistan do? Control terrorism against India, end infiltration, arrest Hafiz Saeed, try those responsible for the Mumbai attacks? Khan is throwing the ball in India’s court for unblocking the current impasse in ties, which implies continuing denial of Pakistan’s involvement in terrorism.

Khan is hardly in a position to make any pathbreaking gesture towards India, be it on terrorism or trade, because the Pakistani military, which engineered his electoral victory, controls policy towards India. Not winning a majority of his own will make him do the military’s bidding all the more. His own Islamist leanings and links with extremist religious groups, especially the Taliban (which earned him the sobriquet of Taliban Khan), are complicating factors. Because of his Taliban links, his Afghanistan policy could make matters worse for us.

The idea floated of inviting all SAARC leaders to Islamabad for Khan’s swearing-in no doubt flowed from Pakistan’s obsession with parity with India: to mark Khan’s (and Pakistan’s) equal political stature with Modi (and India). If India and others were not prepared earlier to attend a SAARC summit in Islamabad it was because of Pakistan’s failure to weed out terrorism from its soil. No change in India’s position is warranted when a military-propped politician with known extremist links has been elected, the jihadi structures in Pakistan remain intact and, indeed, the jihadis are being politically mainstreamed into Pakistan’s polity.

Khan has made no promises to address SAARC’s concerns on terrorism. At our High Commissioner’s call on him, his focus was on resumption of dialogue, the need to resolve the Kashmir issue and human rights violations in Kashmir. That he did not mention trade ties suggests a tightening of his agenda by the Pakistani army. Modi’s gesture in congratulating him even before he took over, the positive sentiments expressed that were appropriate for the occasion, and our diplomatic outreach to him in Islamabad seem enough to remove any impression of cold shouldering him and writing him off even before he took over.

These positive gestures have been balanced by our spokesperson, who, reinforcing his earlier call to Pakistan to work for a terror-and-violence-free region and thus throwing the ball back in Khan’s court, used the latest US decision to designate three more Pakistanis as international terrorists to draw attention forcefully to Pakistan’s continued support to terrorism. Beyond niceties, agreeing to prematurely to engage Pakistan politically and especially to a SAARC summit without credible moves by Islamabad on the terrorism issue would to hand over the advantage to Khan before he has done anything to deserve it.

Kanwal Sibal is former foreign secretary

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 17, 2018 19:17 IST