The incoming Prime Minister (PM)has claimed that he knows India well, since he travelled widely in that country during his storied cricketing career. He certainly has no shortage of fans across the border. They include cricket greats, such as Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar.
In his speech, Imran expressed interest in opening trade with India and conveyed the impression that he wanted to develop a new relationship with our estranged sibling. Soon thereafter, Indian PM Narendra Modi called to congratulate Imran on his electoral victory and said that India was “ready to enter a new era of relations with Pakistan.”
To understand the opportunities and challenges Imran Khan would see as he strives to improve Indo-Pakistan ties, I reached out to Tilak Devasher, author of Pakistan: Courting the Abyss, and Pakistan: At the Helm.
Devasher cautioned that whenever a new government takes over, “there is a certain amount of goodwill and an opportunity to reexamine the country’s foreign policy. However, overtures by themselves will not improve relations.” He said we can’t read too much into these overtures unless they are followed up with concrete measures.
The army is unlikely to give Imran much leeway on ‘issues they consider to be their exclusive preserve’
Devasher said that inviting cricketers for the inauguration is largely symbolic. It will not in itself solve the long-standing political issues that divide the two countries: “There is much speculation in India as to why there was a suggestion to invite SAARC leaders initially for Imran’s inauguration and then that was scuttled. Was it pressure from the army? Was it a signal of moving too fast?”
Imran has not offered any concrete proposals for resolving the political impasse with India. That may have been by design. After all, Taiwan and China have been trading for years despite being unable to resolve their political dispute. I asked Devasher if something similar might transpire here. He told me, “opening trade could be one way of improving the political relationship. India would keenly watch what line Imran takes on allowing Indian goods to transit to Afghanistan through Pakistan, a proposal that has been consistently blocked by Pakistan.”
Shireen Mazari’s name has been mentioned as being the defence minister in Imran’s cabinet. Commenting on her, Devasher said she was “a hawk on India and vitriolic.” He added that she may have been chosen to be a counter-weight to the Indian Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman: “The key difference, however, is that the Defence Minister in Pakistan is a rubber stamp and totally ineffective while in India, the Defence Minister wields real power.”
Then we turned to the stand-off over Kashmir. I asked him if any forward movement is likely to take place under Imran’s premiership. He said, “The short answer is that while Indian nationalism is territorial, Pakistani nationalism is religious. There is no middle ground”.
He quoted ZA Bhutto’s book, The Myth of Independence: “If a Muslim majority area can remain a part of India, the raison d’etre of Pakistan collapses… For the same reasons, Pakistan must continue unremittingly her struggle for the rights of self-determination of this subject people… It would be fatal if, in sheer exhaustion or out of intimidation, Pakistan were to abandon the struggle, and a bad compromise would be tantamount to abandonment.”
Devasher said even though the army hanged Bhutto, “every ruler since then — civil and military — has assiduously followed his philosophy.”
I asked why the Agra summit between Musharraf and Vajpayee had failed and whether we might witness another serious attempt being made by either General Bajwa or Imran. He said, “A problem that had persisted for decades can hardly be resolved during a summit without a lot of detailed preparation. I doubt if Bajwa or Imran would have the appetite. In any case, Imran would have a razor thin majority in the National Assembly to take this on. Besides, India too would be moving into the election season soon. It would not be in either Bajwa’s or the Pakistan Army’s interest to make a serious attempt at this time.”
Then we turned to the issue that might well become the defining moment in Imran’s tenure. How to deal with the pink elephant in the room? Will the army give Imran free rein to improve ties with India? Devasher said Imran was the “blue-eyed” boy of the army. Thus, they may cut him some slack, at least initially, since “he seems to be their chosen one. He will thus have more space than what the army gave Nawaz Sharif.”However, the army is unlikely to give him much leeway on “issues they consider to be their exclusive preserve.”
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The heart of the exclusive preserve is the defence budget. He said that the defence budget will only come under civilian control if the army withdraws to the barracks both metaphorically and financially. That is, if it lets Pakistan emerge as a developmental state. “So long as Pakistan continues to be a military state, Imran would find it impossible to either control, or reduce the army’s budget.”
Finally, I asked if Imran will be able to rectify the civil-military imbalance in Pakistan. Devasher said, “Not in the immediate or even medium term. The imbalance can be rectified only when a succession of civil governments provide a semblance of governance and tackle issues directly affecting the people. So far, politicians in Pakistan have tended to line their own pockets instead of tackling the people’s problems. This allows the army to project itself as a saviour of the people when the chips are down. That’s why the people look to the army for succour rather than the civilian leadership. So long as this continues, the military will always dominate the polity.”
Imran, with thousands of fans in India and millions in Pakistan, has a rare opportunity to improve Indo-Pakistan ties. If the army cuts him some slack, he just be able to pull off an upset.
The writer has written, Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Daily Times, August 10th 2018.