Imran Khan’s over enthusiasm killed Indo-Pak talks

Syed Ata Hasnain
Anyone who has even a semblance of understanding of India Pakistan relations will agree that in this relationship there are simply no binaries; it’s not an either/or approach which can work. It’s important to understand that grey is the dominant color. Those who can work through this understanding in different situations can succeed in turning them around with a certain degree of hope.
Let’s apply this to Imran Khan’s situation. Given the immediate background from which he rose to become a Prime Ministerial hopeful it should have been obvious to him that his acceptance in Indian perception would be fairly doubtful. He however imagined that his previous avatar as an educated and perceived liberal, projected during his playboy days, would return immediately to change that perception. Given India’s long suffering at the hands of Pakistan’s radicals and deep state, that was not going to happen. Newly elected leaders do try and espouse peace with neighbors, especially with those with whom their nation has been at odds. However, that is done to make a good beginning and not to establish the agenda on the first day. Take the case of Prime Minister Modi. He invited all South Asian leaders for his inauguration to create the right environment but he did not jump into proposals for talks on the first day. In fact he waited almost 18 months studying the environment and then took steps to progress further; of course these came to naught due to the intransigence of Pakistan’s deep state.
What could Imran Khan have done? Instead of a transformational, all ends up approach he should have tried the creeping and calibrated one; testing waters and moving beyond, never fully closing windows but opening new ones only half way to get a view. He should have realized the sensitivities involved. The first of them, that he was not considered in India to be his own man, having ridden atop a campaign perceived to have the total support of the Pakistan Army. It was obvious that he is not in charge ‘yet’ and any proposals or gestures would not necessarily have the backing of the powerful Army. Second, that to draw any interest from India he would have to offer something different. India’s sensitivity is the oft repeated and well understood notion that ‘talks and terror cannot go hand in hand’. With national elections due in less than eight months any move by the Indian Government to accept a proposal would have to be based upon something which would give it a sense of achievement; of having a Pakistan talking differently. The clichéd idea of simply proposing talks without any change in approach would obviously not work.
Unfortunately Imran Khan perceived that his mere arrival on the scene would augur far better for a changed Indian response. Perhaps he did not realize that he had been watched very carefully in the run up to the election. His linkages with the Army and the radical elements appeared much more embedded in his persona which overpowered any liberal inclinations he may have carried in the past. The cricket fan following in India from the bygone and better days got diluted when awkward political ideology got linked to his name. Perceptions on this would not change so quickly; much more ground work was required towards establishing any credibility to undertake initiatives in as complex an issue as India Pakistan relations.
Imran Khan drafted the services of Shah Mahmood Qureshi as his Foreign Minister. Qureshi is not inexperienced and no greenhorn. The current strategy that Pakistan is following appears to be his brainchild. He does know that there is a fair percentage in India among the elite who prefer to look positively towards talks, irrespective of any dilution by Pakistan in its stand on terror. In the environment in which Pakistan finds itself, having to prove to the international community that it is doing something more than just the ordinary to curb terror and it’s financing in particular, it’s always advantageous to make a few gestures of peace without any serious outcome in mind. It makes for good optics for the international community and with the UN General Assembly session underway its will be spoken about quite positively in the corridors of the UN. It is smart thinking. Qureshi knows that after India reversed its decision on External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj meeting him at the sidelines of the UNGA all he has to do for some time is to maintain a disposition of innocence; that Pakistan’s new government had made a magnanimous offer to India which India initially accepted but turned down within 24 hours. The Pakistan story will be told and retold all over the corridors there because Pakistan is adept at doing it. It won’t be spoken that even as the proposal for talks was being made there was action afoot by Pakistan Rangers at the Jammu IB to target a BSF jawan and a vicious campaign to target Kashmiri policemen and their families was simultaneously underway. That is the Indian narrative and it won’t be spoken much; that Pakistan has taken no action to curb its support to terror by proxy against India won’t be spoken either. All that the world will hear is that India has refused a magnanimous gesture by Pakistan’s new leader who is attempting to give peace a chance.
If Foreign Minister Qureshi is sincere he will advise his Prime Minister that the period of the next eight months up to the Indian elections is the time to create the right environment. In this period internal deliberations with the Pakistan Army Chief must be carried out. General Qamar Bajwa is projected to be serious about seeking peace with India. If that be their common aim they must remember no Indian government can afford to even look towards talks while continuing to be hit by terror. Ground swell of public opinion just won’t allow it. So it is Pakistan which has to demonstrate the change not India. Given the aftermath of the Wuhan summit and the very perceptible reset in relations between India and China, Pakistan too needs to look inwards and review the benefits of following its policy of proxy war. To remain in denial is not going to be helpful.
On India’s part, we may have been hasty in accepting the meeting at New York between the Foreign Ministers but it is part of work in progress that such mistakes are made. What we really need to do is to start telling the Indian story to the world a little more effectively and a little more loudly.
In agreement with
(The author is former GOC of Srinagar based 15 Corps)