Many analysts (internal and external) believed that the 2018 election would be a tough fight with the PTI (Pakistan-Tehreek-I-Insaaf) having a slight edge (as a consequence of support from Pakistan’s deep state). Surveys also predicted a close fight (the importance of undecided voters was highlighted in all of these) with the PTI having a slight edge.
Former PM Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan, along with daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, in spite of both facing jail terms, was thought of by many as a gamble which could have been a game changer in Punjab. Sharif returned to Pakistan, leaving his ailing wife Kulsoom Nawaz in London, and this, many believed, would help PML-N (PTI’s chief rival) in securing sympathy votes.
Ultimately, the PTI actually romped home quite comfortably, and emerged as the single largest party with 119 parliamentary seats, while the PML-N was a distant second with 63 seats (PML-N did emerge as the single largest party in the provincial election) and the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) was at the third position.
Imran Khan’s India Policy
While there has been a lot of focus on the support which PTI has received from the army, there is also curiosity about what sort of policy Imran Khan will follow vis-à-vis India. It has been argued that the Indian establishment is not particularly comfortable with Imran Khan (who, unlike Sharif, may not challenge the Pakistan army’s India policy). The Indian High Commission in Islamabad is supposed to have been in touch with some of his close advisors (every government keeps channels of communications open with all political forces, and there is nothing unusual about this) in the run up to the elections.
At this stage, it is very tough to predict Imran Khan’s precise approach towards India. On the one hand, he has made belligerent statements against India, accusing Nawaz Sharif of being soft on India. While speaking in 2016, Khan had stated:
‘Our premier [Nawaz Sharif], instead of raising voice [for Kashmiris], is busy in making his business flourish there.
On another occasion he had taken a dig at Nawaz Sharif, saying that not every Pakistani is more concerned about his business than his country.
In fact, a day before the polls, Khan stated that Nawaz Sharif was more concerned about India’s interests and was even willing to discredit Pakistan’s army, which is why India preferred him.
How seriously should we take Imran Khan’s rhetoric
In the past few elections, including Nawaz Sharif’s triumphs in 1997 and 2013, anti-India propaganda did not find much traction, and the PML-N itself has indulged in anti-India rhetoric. So Khan’s statements should not be taken seriously.
These statements are very common in Pakistan politics. We have to separate political rhetoric from what he actually does when he is in power.
No substantial headway can be expected over the next few months, between both countries, given the mammoth geopolitical and economic challenges which Imran Khan is facing. On the Indian side too, no grand gesture can be expected, given the fact that elections are to be held in May 2019. Backdoor diplomacy, of course, cannot be ruled out. A meeting between Imran Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is also a possibility.
In the long run however, there could be some movement forward. In his first address to the Pakistani people, Imran Khan spoke in favor of resolving contentious issues through dialogue, while also pitching for closer economic linkages and jointly combating poverty.
In a media interview recently, he stated:
If you have a good relationship with India, it opens up trade, and trade with a huge market. Both countries would benefit.
PTI has made strong inroads into Punjab, and the business community of the province has been in favour of closer economic ties with India for sometime.
Imran’s familiarity with India
During Khan’s address to the Pakistani people, he also spoke about his familiarity with India, as well as personal ties through his cricketing career.
In 2015, during his visit to India, Imran met with PM Modi and backed peace initiatives between both countries. During his visit, Imran also met with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (who he praised) and, in the past, he has had kind words for Nitish Kumar’s governance.
Even some of Khan’s close advisors, like former Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and current Vice President of PTI Shah Mahmood Qureshi (who also served as Foreign Minister during the PPP government led by Asif Ali Zardari), are experienced and are familiar with India. Kasuri has numerous personal friendships in India, Qureshi, an agriculturalist, was president of the Farmers Association of Pakistan and has strong links in Indian Punjab.
Pakistan is facing numerous internal challenges and it is virtually impossible to comment on how things will pan out in the context of India-Pakistan ties. A lot will, however, depend upon the intent of the Pakistan army, as well as ties between Imran Khan and the army, and the role which both China and the United States play in South Asia. While Imran Khan’s initial overtures should be welcomed, it is best to wait and watch and not prophesize, as far as India-Pakistan relations are concerned.