Pakistan-India Ties under Imran Khan: Opportunities and Challenges
Photo Credit: White Star
By Tridivesh Singh Maini

Pakistan-India Ties under Imran Khan: Opportunities and Challenges

Aug. 28, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Newly-elected Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who had earlier been Foreign Minister during the tenure of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government until 2011, addressed a press conference on August 19, 2018. Qureshi spoke about the importance of the neighborhood for Pakistan. PM Khan too had referred to better ties with the neighborhood during his first address after taking his oath as PM; but unlike his address after his party’s electoral victory on July 25, when he had spoken in detail about Pakistan’s important relations with its neighbors including Afghanistan, Iran, and India, his August 19 address had no real reference to India. Yet, Khan’s tweets and Qureshi’s press conference indicate the possible opportunities which exist in the context of the bilateral India-Pakistan relationship. The relationship has many dimensions, the first of which is the situation in Afghanistan and the likely role of the US.


During his press conference, Qureshi laid emphasis on ties with Afghanistan, and the need to remove distrust. After the terror attack on Ghazni as well as the attack on a school in Kabul, the new PTI government needs to deal with an angry Kabul. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani accused Pakistan of treating Taliban insurgents involved in the attack. In an angry message to the Pakistani Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, Ghani said:


“General Bajwa, you signed a document with us and told me repeatedly in our conversations over the phone that when the elections [in Pakistan] are over you will pay attention to it. I need answers now … From where they came and why are they receiving treatment in your hospitals?”


During US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pakistan, negotiations with the Taliban will be high on the agenda. Washington, in spite of its discomfort with Imran Khan, will have to seek Islamabad’s support for a reasonably stable set-up, which could pave the way for the US ultimately withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. It would be pertinent to point out that a State Department spokesperson categorically stated that it was still ready to engage with sections of the Taliban.


A lot will depend upon the Pakistan army’s behavior. The US has tried to penalize the Pakistan military with a dramatic reduction in military aid, but there has been no perceptible change in attitude as was evident from recent terror attacks in Afghanistan. New Delhi will be closely watching how the US-Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship pans out over the next few months, given its own strategic and economic stakes in the country. New Delhi will hope that the US looks at Afghanistan from a forward-looking lens and not just in terms of its short-term advantages.


Qureshi also spoke about the need for greater engagement with India, and in reference to the Kashmir issue said that even core issues can only be addressed through dialogue.


Interestingly, PM Narendra Modi, who had earlier called Khan after his victory, had also sent a letter to him. As is the case with India-Pakistan ties, a controversy was generated, this time on whether or not Modi mentioned the revival of engagement between both countries in the letter. While Qureshi said Modi had spoken about the renewal of “constructive engagement,” New Delhi categorically denied it and referred to Modi’s emphasis on a terror free South Asia.


If one were to examine the prospects for the resumption of dialogue, big steps by the Modi government can be safely ruled out given that Indian general elections are on the anvil. Attempts will be made to hold the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Islamabad at the end of the year (the summit had to be cancelled in 2016), but currently, there are slim chances of India attending. Interestingly, the late Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee had attended a SAARC Summit in January 2004, only four months before the general election of May 2004. While Vajpayee lost the election, this Summit did pave the way for an improvement of ties between India and Pakistan.


If one were to look beyond political engagement, two clear areas where there is scope are people-to-people contact and trade.


The gesture of the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria, of presenting Imran Khan a cricket bat with autographs of Indian cricket team, during his meeting with the PM on August 20, as well as Khan’s invitation to former cricketers Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, and Navjot Singh Sidhu (who was the only one who ultimately went, and who also happens to be the Minister of Culture and Tourism in the Punjab Government) are symbolic. The door for enhanced people-to-people contact and less contentious issues is thus very much open.


Both in the context of people-to-people ties as well as economic links between both countries, Punjab can play a significant role. During his visit to Pakistan, Sidhu repeatedly laid stress on the need for closer people-to-people contact and economic ties between both Punjabs (for over a decade, there has been a strong lobby on both sides of the Radcliffe Line which has been pushing for the same). Sidhu’s hug with the Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa drew scathing criticism in India. Interestingly, Bajwa, who has been speaking in favor of better ties with India for some time, told Sidhu that Pakistan is in favor of peace with India. (On the ground, there is still no perceptible change though.)


He also said that Pakistan was willing to open the Kartarpur religious corridor. This corridor is supposed to connect Dera Baba Nanak (Punjab, India) with Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur, Narowal district) (both places are 4 kilometers from each other). Guru Nanak, the first Guru of the Sikhs whose 550th birthday is being commemorated next year, spent the last few years of his life at this shrine. Through the corridor, Sikh pilgrims can pay obeisance at Kartarpur without a visa. Both India and Pakistan could explore the possibility of working jointly for these celebrations and making Sikh pilgrimages smoother.


Significantly, in a tweet on August 21, Khan thanked Sidhu for attending his oath taking, and also expressed the view that those criticizing Sidhu were doing immense harm to regional peace.

Imran Khan has a myriad of domestic problems to address. He is unlikely to exhaust too much of his political capital in dealing with India, but incremental steps would be a good way to start.

In the same tweet, Khan referred to the need for resumption of dialogue on contentious issues and bilateral trade as well. The Indian Ambassador to Pakistan has echoed Khan’s views and pitched on numerous occasions for greater bilateral trade. By providing Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to India, Imran Khan’s government could send the right signals. Previous governments (both PPP and PML-N) have been in favor of the same but failed to do so, either due to pressure from domestic constituencies or the establishment. Similarly, in the long run, Pakistan could also provide the Wagah land route for the transit trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia. For too long, Islamabad has refused to provide transit, although last year there was talk of Pakistan being willing to do so. While Bajwa’s recent statements and his assurances to Sidhu are welcome developments, it remains to be seen if the Pakistan deep state is willing to allow closer economic linkages between both countries.


Beijing too has an important role to play in the context of India-Pakistan ties. It can put pressure on Islamabad to provide MFN status to India, and should trade pick up between both countries, at some stage trilateral cooperation may be possible. The recent visit of the Chinese Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, to Punjab (India) was significant in this context. While he was careful not to even vaguely refer to trilateral cooperation, in a tweet, he did unequivocally bat for India-Pakistan peace. The Chinese diplomat also spoke about possible Chinese investments in the border state, which would not just strengthen India-China economic ties, but could also incentivize China to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan.


While analysts lay a lot of emphasis on differences between India and China, the fact that the Chinese are beginning to view things differently is also evident from Beijing’s interest in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, as well as its interest in working with India in Afghanistan. (In the past, Beijing had kept India out of its dialogues held on Afghanistan). This would create further incentives for Beijing to look beyond the zero-sum narrative vis-à-vis the region.


While there will be pressure on Pakistan to take action against terror groups as a consequence of being put on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list, Beijing too can urge Islamabad to stop providing support to terror groups targeting India, Washington has already told Pakistan on a number of occasions, but Beijing has been cautious so far. It would also be pertinent to point out that India and Pakistan will be part of military exercises under the umbrella of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This may not necessarily help remove the existing distrust but it would be a significant development.


Imran Khan has a myriad of domestic problems to address. He is unlikely to exhaust too much of his political capital in dealing with India, but incremental steps would be a good way to start. Who better than a former cricketer with strong links in India (with not just cricketers but other celebrities), to promote closer people-to-people contact? As far as the strategic issues are concerned, it is not just New Delhi and Islamabad, but also external forces — China and the US — which will play important roles in nudging Islamabad to rethink its ways. Both countries need to think out of the box and consult different stakeholders to move ahead. On Afghanistan, Washington and Beijing need to keep the pressure on the Pakistani army to change its zero-sum thinking. New Delhi itself needs to be flexible and pragmatic and should not allow the ultra-nationalist narrative to dictate its Pakistan policy. Both sides need to exhibit statesmanship if some forward movement is to take place.


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