It is quite remarkable how Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan’s presumptive PM Imran Khan have hit upon the same slogan to pitch to their respective countries. Mr Modi doesn’t tire talking of “New India” while the Pakistani leader says it in Hindi/Urdu: “Naya Pakistan!” Are they similar in outlook? Will they be on the same wavelength when it comes to bilateral relations?
These questions are premature. Much depends on how Mr Khan copes as a politician in government, one holding the highest civilian office, especially in relation to the Army, as in Pakistan it’s the Army that matters most. Specifically in Mr Khan’s case, it’s thought the military is the power behind the throne.
There are other considerations too. As a politician, Mr Khan’s popularity was rising over the years, and yet he needed the unmistakeable push the Army gave him. But he’s not the only one the Army has lately promoted.
Extremists and terrorists were made to run in the July 25 election in the military’s effort to “mainstream” them. To a man, they lost. And yet, as an acute Indian observer of Pakistan, Tilak Devasher, a former senior Cabinet Secretariat officer whose 2016 book Pakistan: Courting the Abyss drew high praise from leading Pakistanis, said recently: “Though the extremists lost, they have been mainstreamed. They can wear party colours. The Army has succeeded in its objective.”
Clearly, the terrorists can now be legitimate political operatives assembled under various party flags. They will, in fact, be the Army’s political storm-troopers and act as a forceful check on the incoming PM, should he begin to develop ideas of his own.
Whether Mr Khan turns out to be like Mr Modi or not, in his background, temperament and capability (in very different fields), he bears comparison to the dodgy but brilliant — and ill-fated — Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto had an advantage over Mr Khan. Until he himself created his nemesis, Gen. Zia-ul Haq, for a long time he dealt with an Army mired in uncertainties and, after the 1971 defeat and Bangladesh’s creation, faced demoralisation. Even so, Bhutto’s approach is instructive.
In his just-published Pakistan: At the Helm, Devasher says: “Bhutto seemed determined to get into power, by hook or by crook... On one occasion (he) told Asghar Khan in 1970: ‘We can rule together’. When Asghar Khan asked about his programme after coming into power, Bhutto chuckled and his reply was honest, though shocking to the air marshal. He said: “The programme is to rule. The people are stupid and I know how to fool them. I will have the ‘danda’ in my hand and no one will be able to remove us for 20 years.”
“Once entrenched in power, Bhutto systematically moulded state institutions to his will. They got badly damaged and the state suffered the consequences. As Jamsheed Marker notes, the judiciary was made subservient, the powerful civil service was ruined with the introduction of the Lateral Entry Scheme that brought in party activists.”
Mr Khan faces a far more confident Army. Still, how he navigates his way through the labyrinth will be interesting to watch. PM Imran Khan’s first priority will be to tackle the huge financial debt imposed upon Pakistan by China’s special “aid” funnelled for the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The Americans have said they’d use their influence in the IMF to prevent a bailout package that would, in effect, fund China. If Mr Khan can work out something favourable with the US, he’d have better standing in the country and some leeway with the military.
Optics matter, after all. For the Pakistan military, a civilian head of government is a necessity to sustain the appearance that Pakistan is at least half a democracy. Finding international aid for dictatorships gets difficult. And this need of the Army may give the PM a degree of latitude.
Kashmir and other issues come only later in priority. In fact, to balance Mr Khan — especially if he is successful — the Army can keep up the terrorism pressure in Kashmir. This is a clever way to keep the newly mainstreamed elements happy. It’s therefore just as well that foreign leaders aren’t being invited for Mr Khan’s inaugural. The ground is hardly ready for Mr Modi to visit.
His external exuberance exhibited in December 2015, when he surprised then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif by turning up at his door uninvited in Lahore, had terrible consequences. It wasn’t factored in by the Indians that the generals might disapprove.
The Modi gesture may have led the Pakistan Army to feel that civilians were running away with too much leeway. This sense may have been reinforced as the previous year Mr Sharif had, off his own bat, accepted the invitation to attend Mr Modi’s May 2014 swearing-in. The retribution was swift, and the relationship went into a downward spiral.
After the Pathankot and Uri attacks in 2016, New Delhi orchestrated a boycott of the 19th Saarc summit in Pakistan. With the exceptional success of the move, the Pakistan Army would always be left wondering whether invitees would show up if India was again a no-show, in case South Asian leaders were invited for Mr Khan’s inauguration.
There were thus good reasons for Mr Modi not to visit Pakistan now, seen from both India’s perspective and Pakistan’s. But there is also another very important consideration: Kashmir.
Kashmir isn’t quiet. There is obviously a huge and continuing Pakistani role, going back decades, but of late we have botched it real bad, politically. Arguably, earlier, there had not been greater alienation at the popular level in the Valley. Staunch supporters of Kashmir’s integration with India, along with autonomy, have been pushed on the backfoot. There can’t be a worse time to talk Kashmir with Pakistan.
Mr Modi did the right thing in telephoning Mr Khan to congratulate him and express a desire for improvement in relations. Not doing so after an election would have been churlish. Last Thursday, Pakistan formally acknowledged the Indian leader’s gesture and expressed a similar hope. Both sides kept it at the level of generalities. This is just as well for now. We can pick up the pieces once the situation in the Valley improves.