What Imran Khan’s election means for India

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By Ranvir S. Nayar
Indians have had a love-hate relationship with Imran Khan. As a bowler and captain of Pakistan’s cricket team, who often handed humiliating defeats to India, most Indian male cricket fans loathed him, while Indian women were in love with the handsome and lanky man from across the border who was known to be quite a ladies’ man.
Though not in the same sense, India’s love-hate relationship will surely continue in Khan’s new profession – politics – now that he’s been elected the prime minister of Pakistan. On the face of it, the mandarins of Indian government will not be too pleased with the outcome of the elections, even though it is pretty much expected. Despite the limitations of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his failure to deliver peace, India would have preferred to have him back at the helm, mainly due to his perceived friendliness towards India and rather cordial relations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
During the campaign, Khan had berated Sharif’s “soft” attitude towards India and also attacked it for playing the cop in the region. He repeatedly said that he would not accept India’s hegemony like other South Asian nations have.
Sharif’s departure from office was indeed a big setback for India, and in the run-up to the elections, India was worried by the barely veiled support that Pakistan’s army – the country’s real power centre – had been giving to Khan. India’s biggest worry is that if Khan did turn out to be the puppet prime minister as surely the Pakistani Army would like him to be, tensions between the two countries could spiral out of control.

NEW DELHI: Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chairman Imran Khan met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, 16TH December 2016. He was in New Delhi on a two-day visit to attend a moot. According to PTI,  Modi had expressed desire to meet Imran Khan. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Naeemul Haque and Indian Foreign Office spokesman Vikas Swarup are also seen in the picture.

Indeed, over the last year or so, since Sharif’s exit from power, there has been a significant increase in cross-border tensions, with Pakistan and India engaging in almost-daily exchanges of firing and shelling. The two sides have also abandoned the semblance of an effort towards resolving numerous issues that divide them, including terrorism, water sharing and trade. There has barely been an official-level meeting, and the relations are near rock bottom.
Khan’s victory comes at this delicate stage. With the not-so-tacit backing of the army, he will definitely find himself in a much stronger position than his predecessor, who was tremendously disliked by the army, partly due to his attempts to build peace with India.
Thus when a strengthened Khan comes face to face with Modi, who himself is one of the strongest prime ministers in nearly three decades, both will be careful to ensure that they are not seen to have blinked first. Khan has been strident in his attacks on Sharif for his India policy and would definitely not leave himself open to a counter-attack on the same account. Khan has also been rather soft on terrorist organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, based in Pakistan and continuously targeting India, and that would be a big issue between the two countries.
Modi burnt his fingers by going on a sudden, unannounced visit to the Pakistani city of Lahore in December 2015 on Sharif’s birthday, in an attempt to reopen talks between the two neighbours. However, it has now become the norm that whenever India and Pakistan seem to be moving towards a rapprochement, a sudden and vicious attack on India derails the relationship again. This story was also repeated within weeks of Modi’s gambit as heavily armed terrorists attacked an Indian air force base, close to the border with Pakistan, killing seven soldiers in a four-day battle.
Since then Modi has gone back to his strongman tactics in his dealings with Pakistan, refusing to allow dialogue even between junior officials from advancing. In his victory speech, Khan declared that for every step that India takes towards peace, Pakistan will take two. Welcome as the declaration may be, each side could end up waiting for the other to take the first step, and India could also remain stuck on its position that Pakistan takes stringent steps against terror organisations operating against India from territory under its control before the dialogue can restart. This is especially true as Modi could face a tough election barely nine months from now.
While first steps towards a rapprochement between India and Pakistan under Khan’s government may appear to be challenging, the rest of the journey could indeed be easier with him rather than any other leader. This could be because of three factors. One, after a long time, Pakistan’s prime minister is someone who is backed by the army and hence he would spend less time looking over his shoulder and feel more secure in his job.
The second factor is the dramatic change in  attitude of the United States towards Pakistan, especially under President Donald Trump, who has been turning the screws on Pakistan, accusing it of taking billions of dollars in aid from the US without delivering its part of the bargain. And third, Khan could also be nudged by Pakistan’s most reliable ally, China, to take steps towards normalising relations with India. After a gap of nearly two years, Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping have already had three bilateral meetings this year, pointing towards a mutual desire to ease tensions.
Thus, domestic and international factors could allow or even push Khan to try and improve relations with India. If indeed that happens, it could also strengthen Modi’s own position in India, as he could claim that he forced Pakistan to end support to terrorists and hold talks with India, without any Indian concession. Whatever the position, the relaunch of peace talks would be a very welcome outcome of the Pakistani elections.
(Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.)