It is heartening that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has responded to virtual Pakistan prime minister designate Imran Khan’s olive branch held out to him by congratulating him on his party’s election victory through a phone call.
Modi is no stranger to symbolism. He had made an unscheduled halt to meet the then Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif on his way back from an overseas trip on December 25, 2015 and broken bread with Nawaz and his family in a spirit of rare bonhomie. Modi’s invitation to Nawaz and other SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) leaders for his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi was also an unorthodox way of starting his prime ministerial innings.
In Pursuit of Peace
When Imran, who was breathing fire on India during his election campaign, proffered his hand to Modi to discuss bilateral issues principally Kashmir, he had expressed that he expected Modi to reciprocate. That he has done so promptly shows an intent to meet him half-way in pursuit of peace.
Imran’s swearing-in announced for August 11 is now a fait accompli even though the Opposition has been complaining that it does not accept the electoral verdict, claiming that the poll was rigged.
For India, prudence lies in dealing with Imran without demur. There is of course the hard reality that the puppet strings of the Imran Khan-led government would be in the hands of the Pakistan Army but that has been with past governments too and there is nothing that India can do about it.
If anything, the Army and Imran are starting on a clean slate without any of the old baggage that characterised relations between the Army and Nawaz Sharif who had fallen foul of General Parvez Musharraf, the Army chief during an earlier Nawaz stint.
Period of Honeymoon With Army
In his initial days, Imran will have a period of honeymoon with the Army when his ideas will have greater traction. How long that period would last is anybody’s guess. While Imran is a strong-willed person, over the years he has learnt which side his bread is buttered.
There is too much ill will on both sides for there to be a speedy and smooth breakthrough on a contentious issue like Kashmir but surely, a beginning can be made with other confidence-building measures like border trade, reining in trade in drugs, economic engagement between the traders of the two countries and cultural exchanges. Tourism can follow with strict checks on either side.
Modi’s expression of hope that democracy will take deeper roots in Pakistan can hardly be missed by the Pakistan Army which has been a roadblock in the path of genuine democracy. The Prime Minister is believed to have reiterated his “neighbourhood first policy” and “sabka saath, sabka vikas” in the South Asian context, as per a statement issued by the External Affairs Ministry.
It can hardly be ignored that SAARC has become virtually redundant because of differences between India and Pakistan and cooperation in trade, investment, space exploration, satellite technology and science can ensue if there is due give and take between the countries.
The Cold Reality
The cold reality, however, is that it is on Kashmir that there is a prolonged deadlock and unless the issue is tackled on the basis of the Simla Accord with a spirit of give and take, there can be no headway possible and ultimately all confidence-building measures would come to nought.
If there is in-principle acceptance of the need for dialogue, there can be some forward movement. Peace and development have to be the focus of attention.
Much though Pakistan may deny, it is a fact that Pakistan is today looked upon as a pariah in the international community and the terror tag has stuck to it. If Imran is to break new ground, he will need to review the policy of training and arming terrorists to infiltrate into Kashmir and for that he will have to bring his country’s Army on board. That may be a tall order but it is vital for the winds of change to blow across South Asia.