Is India ready to accept Khan’s hand of friendship?
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan, who is likely to be the country’s next prime minister, made a significant gesture regarding improving relations with India during his victory address. Dismissing the Bollywood-style vilification of him by the Indian media, he stated that his government would like to improve relations, resume dialogue and work toward a peaceful resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. He signaled a desire for normalizing trade relations and stated that, if India was to take one step, this would be reciprocated with two by Pakistan. This is an earnest reiteration by an elected prime minister-in-waiting of Pakistan’s regional policy priority — and that too by a leader who was being vilified as an establishment favorite.
In fact, the Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and the military media setup, the ISPR, have been signaling a readiness to engage with India for a long time. It is not that these signals have been ignored in New Delhi, but India has chosen to persist with its anti-Pakistan campaign. It tried to influence the Pakistani election with propaganda and fake news churned out by Indian media channels. Indian strategic and foreign policy analysts spoke unabashedly about investing heavily in the political fortunes of one party and were extremely vicious in their slandering and character assassination of Khan.
The plain reason for the campaign against Pakistan is the domestic politics of India, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have made Muslim and Pakistan-bashing a sheet anchor of their electoral politics. The idea of Hindu Rashtra, or a Hindu state, is the end goal of BJP/RSS politics. It is like setting the time back a couple of millennia to create from myths an ideological basis for Indian nationalism. It is being demonstrated with oppression against the Kashmiri people and the Muslims of India.
Only a few, and in fact very few, Indian thinkers and writers have pointed out the folly of the hate campaign. Notable among them is suspended Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar. Writing for NDTV on July 26, Aiyar stated: “For us in India, the near-universal rejection of Pakistan’s religion-based parties is perhaps the most significant outcome of this election — for it demonstrates (once again) that, far from being partisans or fanatical Islamic terrorists, Pakistanis by and large reject religious extremism and terror politics.” Barkha Dutt, an important Indian columnist, also disagreed with the mainstream Indian media, which has been in overdrive in berating Khan.
The official reaction from New Delhi has yet to come, but there is no doubt that a narrow window of opportunity from now until the end of the year may open for resuming contact and then talks between Pakistan and India.
The official reaction from New Delhi has yet to come, but there is no doubt that a narrow window of opportunity from now until the end of the year may open for resuming contact and then talks between Pakistan and India. The realities and electoral exigencies of Indian politics will dictate the outcome, but theoretically the scenario could unfold with an early top-level meeting, perhaps at the UN General Assembly in September.
This could lead to foreign secretary-level contacts to work out the resumption of official talks on all outstanding issues, including Kashmir. There could be a tacit understanding to carry out what has already been agreed — move forward on humanitarian issues like the prisoners held by each side; implement the already signed liberalized visa regime; continue with the meetings between border security forces; revive trade talks; and negotiate a political resolution for the Jammu and Kashmir, Sir Creek and Siachen issues. Of immense importance is to reiterate a commitment to maintaining the cease-fire along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary. A process could be initiated to work out a joint vision statement, along with an action plan that could be signed at a revived South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit.
This course of action would be encouraged, supported and applauded by the US, China and Russia and could open the way for regional peace and development. This is a tall order, but Pakistan is ready. India needs to demonstrate the maturity to accept the hand of friendship extended by Khan.
• Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and Ambassador to China, India and Denmark. Twitter: @SalmanB_Isb