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Dealing With PM Imran

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India should engage the new Pakistan government, but it must remain cautious.

By: Sharat Sabharwal

The winner in the recently held Pakistan election is the army that did not, and constitutionally, could not have participated in it. The entire electoral exercise had the subtext of the civil-military tussle. The army had made an unsuccessful attempt in 2013 to deny power to Nawaz Sharif by promoting Imran Khan, whose party had failed to make a mark since its founding in 1996. Its distrust of Sharif having deepened during his third term, it launched a no-holds-barred attempt this time with a helping hand from the superior judiciary.

The allegations of rigging on the polling day notwithstanding, the election process was vitiated essentially by the manipulation in the run-up to it. Sharif’s disqualification for life from public office and his conviction along with his charismatic daughter through a selective and uncharacteristically speedy judicial process, numerous defections engineered from his party, active subversion of the media and participation of religious extremists and terrorists, aimed at eroding Sharif’s vote, had queered the pitch for Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML (N)) and smoothened it for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

The election results were on expected lines. Imran Khan is set to form the government in Islamabad with the help of smaller parties to make up the shortfall of 20 seats or so. Though slightly ahead of the PTI but short of the majority in all-important Punjab, the PML (N) is likely to lose out to the former in putting together a majority. The extremist/terrorist candidates failed to make a mark in entering assemblies, though Tehreek-e-Labbaik garnered a noticeable number of votes.

The major opposition parties have cried foul and are in talks to jointly oppose the PTI inside and outside the parliament. Lacking a comfortable majority, without any previous experience of governance, faced with myriad challenges including the urgent need to get an IMF bailout in the face of a less than co-operative United States, Khan will be dependent on the army for his survival.

Sharif had come to represent the voice of a noticeable constituency in Pakistan that questions the army’s narrative. Since he is the main vote getter of PML(N), its 60-plus seats in the National Assembly and performance in the Punjab Assembly hold out some hope that Sharif’s politics is not about to fade away.

The post-election scenario in Pakistan will be more of the same for us — a state dominated by its army that, occasional tactical adjustments apart, has shown no sign of a strategic shift from its policy of an adversarial relationship with India. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done well in reaching out to Imran Khan. We cannot shut out a neighbour and must deal with whoever is in power. Hopefully, Khan’s equation with the army will spare us the agony of false starts.

The election rhetoric apart, the PTI manifesto lists the resolution of the “Kashmir dispute” among the core national interests of Pakistan, calls for its resolution as per the UNSC resolutions and describes “conflict resolution and the security route to co-operation” as the most viable approach with India. Emphasising conflict resolution to the exclusion of co-operative aspects of the relationship, such as trade and transit, the manifesto could not have captured the army’s agenda any better. In his victory speech, too, Imran seemed to hold the entire relationship hostage to the resolution of Kashmir. He should know that a resolution can come about only as a result of a pragmatic and forward-looking approach. Is he willing to adopt it? More importantly, does our current political climate in an election year permit such an approach?

But why set our sights high, when there is a more urgent task at hand — that of bringing a degree of calm and stability to the relationship. The restored ceasefire at the LoC/IB in J&K seems to be holding. Can Pakistan under Imran address our concerns on terror by, inter alia, putting an end to its violent activities in Kashmir to pave the way for dialogue that it craves and hopefully the SAARC summit? Only time will tell. Hope is again running high. There is talk of an invitation to PM Modi to attend Imran’s oath-taking, though such a visit would be better reserved to revive the SAARC process, if possible. However, past experience would counsel keeping our feet firmly on the ground.

Courtesy Indian Express

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