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India-Pakistan relations: Imran Khan’s intentions are unclear and don’t matter| The Factivist by Shekhar Gupta

Don’t be judgemental about Pakistan’s prime minister. Be realistic.

columns Updated: Nov 29, 2018 18:50 IST
India-Pakistan relations,Imran Khan,Kartarpur corridor
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (extreme left), cricketer-turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu and others during the ceremony for Kartarpur corridor, Pakistan on November 28(PTI)

Imran Khan is right to say a war between India and Pakistan is unlikely as no nuclear power would lose.

It doesn’t, however, mean that peace is about to break out. It also depends on what kind of war we are talking about.

War and peace between enemies who’ve fought four wars on various scales in seven decades, continue a low-intensity conflict through most of these, and have existential fears about each other is too serious and complex an issue to be analysed in terms of events and speeches. Analysts — peaceniks and warmongers — on both sides have made that error often enough in the past.

I am no exception. Over the 33 years since my first reporting visit to Pakistan (summer of 1985, to cover the trial of Sikh hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane), I have over-read the situation more than once, on the positive and the negative side. That, despite the fact that I have probably spent more time in Pakistan as a journalist than most in Indian media.

It takes you time — and patience — to appreciate the many unresolved ideological and political issues underlying our hostility. It is fashionable but juvenile to make comparisons with France and Germany. Imran is only the latest to use it, not the first. Nothing can be lazier. Neither France nor Germany was born by a division of the other. They fought many wars, but one was defeated with finality. Europe spent decades dismantling its toxic nationalism. There was America as the Big Daddy supervising this, and guaranteeing Western Europe protection.

To put it brutally: This peace wasn’t reached because good sense descended on both sides. It is because one was defeated, devastated, divided and occupied by the world’s biggest powers. The first and the last opportunity for India-Pakistan peace was the Simla Agreement. We know who was insincere from the moment the agreement was signed.

This is precisely when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (an elected, civilian leader with the vanquished Army deflated) launched Pakistan on to the path of pan-Islamisation and nuclearisation. He dissed that great Simla opportunity for permanent peace as a humiliating Treaty of Versailles and began preparing for a “thousand-year war” (his early 1970s boast, repeated about two decades later by his daughter as prime minister). Bhutto Senior wanted it to be a war Pakistan would never lose again. Hence the nukes.

That’s the reason Imran Khan can stand at a solemn religious celebration and remind the much bigger India that its conventional military power amounts to nothing.

Bhutto founded this post-1971 strategic doctrine. Let’s call it the ‘we-shall-never-lose-another-war to India’ doctrine. We could argue that Pakistan lost in Kargil. But the nukes closed India’s options. Or a provocation like that would have invited a full military response.

By the time Bhutto was done re-toxifying his country, his Army was set to reclaim power. It has gone through challenges, particularly from two full-majority governments under Nawaz Sharif. But now the template is set. An elected government is allowed as an optical necessity. Foreign, strategic, India-US-China policies, control of the nukes, temperature in Kashmir, Afghanistan are all out of the syllabus for elected governments.

In their own different ways, both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif challenged it. One paid for it with prison, exile and life. The other with prison more than once, even with key family members, exile and disenfranchisement.

Imran won’t make a pretence. Since Zia’s assassination and the return of some democracy, his is the first government elected and set up entirely with the institutional Army patronage. His party is truly the King’s Party in Pakistan’s politics. To ensure his election, the guy most likely to win was barred from contesting, campaigning, jailed with his daughter and son-in-law. The numbers Imran still fell short of were “arranged” overnight. Of course, his patrons were humane enough to free his rivals once the mission was accomplished. Imran isn’t about to make the blunder of his predecessors, and challenge the fauji-democracy template of divided powers. Or what an exasperated Nawaz Sharif described to me once as “aadha teetar, aadha bater” (half a partridge, half a quail).

Don’t be judgemental about Imran. Be realistic. On my first visit to Pakistan, eminent Pakistani lawyer, politician and activist, Aitzaz Ahsan, had described Zia’s party-less Muhammad Khan Junejo government as “bonsai democracy”. Pretty to look from outside, but never allowed to grow roots and branches outside of its little shelf-space.

Over the decades, Pakistan has cemented that template. One who challenges it, goes to jail, exile, death or all three. Imran Khan is smart. In all evidence so far, he’s Pakistan’s first volunteer bonsai. His intentions are unclear and don’t matter. His limitations do, and these are clear.

That’s the fundamental reality to remember before we get breathless over a gesture, an event, a speech, a pilgrimage.

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First Published: Nov 29, 2018 18:49 IST