Can Imran Khan thaw hostile Pakistan-India relations?

By Dr Stuti Bhatnagar and Dr Alex Davis
Adjunct Fellow, University of Adelaide; New Generation Network Scholar, Australia India Institute (University of Melbourne) and La Trobe University

Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-I-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) recently became the single largest party in the Pakistani parliament, after disputed elections on July 25.

The precise party make-up of the government of the former Pakistan cricket captain remains unclear, but as Pakistan’s expected new Prime Minister he’s made the India-Pakistan relationship an early priority.

Positive indications

Khan’s language so far represents an important possible shift. He has insisted that Pakistan wants to improve its troubled relationship with India, saying that conflict “is not how we will grow, and it is detrimental to the sub-continent”.

Khan went on to emphasise trade as an area of mutual benefit; and he sees development and growth as the way to alleviate the issues of poverty effecting both nations, saying “we can resolve the poverty crisis in (South Asia).” This emphasis is both a response to public opinion in Pakistan and, in some ways, an attempt to speak the development-focused language of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Old conflicts

While the focus on poverty possibly represents a new direction and a potential platform for India and Pakistan to collaborate, Khan has also maintained some of the familiar themes of Pakistani-Indian tension.

He has reiterated the traditional Pakistani view on the disputed territory of Kashmir describing it as “the biggest problem”, and highlighted significant human rights violations by the Indian military.

Placing the resolution of the Kashmir conflict at the forefront of the dialogue has been an old foreign policy direction by Pakistan, particularly by the powerful Pakistani military and its resolve to “provide political and moral support” to movements of self-determination in Kashmir.

However, in relation to Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province, Khan has signalled an intention to move beyond the all too familiar “blame game that whatever goes wrong in Balochistan is because of India and vice versa”.

India’s view

Since Khan’s election win, Modi has released a statement which expressed hope that democracy will “take deeper roots in Pakistan”. The statement did not directly respond to Khan’s comment on Kashmir, but reiterated Modi’s desire for development and poverty alleviation. More recently, Modi has personally telephoned Khan to congratulate him on his election win.

Indian media and prominent political analysts continue to be sceptical about a change in India-Pakistan relations under Khan, primarily due to his links with the Pakistani military.

The idea of the influence of the military and intelligence services in Pakistani politics and their continuing unwillingness to enter into a formal Indian-Pakistani dialogue remains a key focus for India.

However, there is also the possibility that supporting an agreement between the army and Khan could potentially pave the way for a joint-front on dialogue with India. Khan’s openness and his popularity may, in time, serve as a means of starting negotiations. It is perhaps a positive reminder that the last time the Pakistan army was ascendant politically, during the administration of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, significant efforts (though largely inconclusive) towards dialogue were made.

Pakistan “bashing” likely ahead of India’s general election

While Khan’s specific policy directions are yet to emerge, a serious realignment seems unlikely in the lead up to general elections in India in the first half of next year. It would not be in Modi’s electoral interests to enter serious negotiations with Pakistan over Kashmir, or any other similar issue, at this time.

The recent talk of so-called “illegal Bangladeshis“ in the aftermath of the National Register of Citizens count in Assam serves as an example. The President of the ruling BJP Amit Shah questioned whether the BJP’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), were serious about illegal immigration, using the issue to tar Congress as a party “for Muslims”.

Pakistan, and Kashmir, is an even bigger electoral cudgel. As witnessed in the 2014 Indian general election campaign, the BJP used conflict with Pakistan to serve its political purposes. Demonising India’s Muslim neighbours enabled the BJP to brand the INC as pro-Muslim and therefore in opposition to India’s Hindu majority. It would not be in Modi’s political interest to enter serious negotiations with Pakistan over Kashmir in the lead-up to next year’s election.

The continuing security situation in Kashmir and precarious political dynamics suggest that the electoral imperative for Modi is Pakistan-“bashing”, rather than dialogue. The moment might be right for Khan, but it is not for Modi.

In time, Khan’s closeness to the Pakistan military, and his framing of conflict with India as an obstacle to development might open a space for dialogue. In the short term, though, Khan’s call for improving India-Pakistan ties is unlikely to change the status quo.

This article was co-published with the Australia India Institute

Banner image: Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan. Credit: Heinrich-Boll-Stiftung

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