Improving Indo-Pak ties


Sixty-five-year-old Imran Khan, chief of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has taken over as his country’s 22nd prime minister. Saturday’s swearing-in-ceremony ended not only years of waiting for the former cricket star but decades of political dominance by two family-based parties: Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

PTI won the largest number of seats in the National Assembly promising a “Naya (new) Pakistan.” But the wafer-thin majority could make it difficult for Khan to push through his reforms agenda. The opposition, which controls the Senate or the upper house of the National Assembly, can make things difficult for him. This may force him to go slow in his fight against corruption. The slender majority may also act as constraints when it comes to foreign policy initiatives. This means making peace with, or even reaching out to India, may not be his first priority.

This may disappoint all those who feel concerned over the steady deterioration in the relations between India and Pakistan. Nothing reveals the extent of animosity toward Pakistan in India more than the fact that only one of the three Indian cricketers invited by Khan, Navjot Singh Sidhu, attended his swearing-in ceremony, that too ignoring taunts and threats in social media.

This was not how things looked immediately after Narendra Modi assumed office in 2014.

Modi invited Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration ceremony in New Delhi. The two leaders visited each other’s country. This bonhomie, however, did not last long. The reason was the attacks upon Indian military and civilian targets allegedly by Pakistan-trained militants. Those saw Modi take a hard line against Islamabad and overtly work toward isolating Pakistan internationally. There were Indian “surgical strikes” on “terrorist launch pads” in Pakistan-administered Kashmir taking the bilateral relationship to new lows.

So both Modi and Khan will have to think bold and act decisively to take the relations to where it was immediately after Modi took over.

Khan stressed the need for restarting the dialogue between the two countries on all outstanding issues when Indian High Commissioner (Ambassador) Ajay Bisaria called on him on Aug. 10. Though both Khan and Bisaria harped on their pet themes (Kashmir in the case of Pakistan and terrorism and cross-border infiltration in the case of India), this need not stand in the way of initiatives in other fields. Khan, for example, expressed a desire to “increase trade” with India. Bilateral trade between India and Pakistan is estimated to be around $2.61 billion for the 2015-16 period, though both sides recognize that it has the potential to reach $30 billion, ten times its current value. India and Pakistan could also think of creating “economic zones” along their common border to facilitate enhanced trade or even better people-to-people contacts.

Nothing will better relations between the two countries without improved visa and entry policies. This would help Pakistanis with a critical medical condition in the family to travel to India — without having to try their luck on Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s personal intervention. There should be more student exchanges too. The two sides should have a mechanism to monitor and stop ceasefire violations along the Line of Control dividing both sides of Kashmir.

These are all confident-building measures. The ultimate aim should be the comprehensive dialogue on all outstanding issues as Khan urged. The dialogue was halted in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai for which India blamed Pakistan. If India wants to discuss Pakistan’s alleged support for terrorism, it should not object to Kashmir being included in the agenda. Does not New Delhi blame Islamabad for an ongoing insurgency in that Himalayan state?

If building a “Naya (new) Pakistan” is Khan’s dream, to realize it he and Modi have to work for a “Naya Subcontinent” where peace and stability reigns.