A day before first phase of voting begins in India, an endorsement from Pakistans Prime Minister Imran Khan for Prime Minister Narendra Modi was perhaps the least expected statement. To begin with, according to diplomatic protocol, foreign leaders normally shy away from commenting on domestic political outcomes, apart from bland platitudes about working with whoever wins elections.
Beyond that, for the past two months, since the terror attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama that killed 40 jawans, tensions between the two countries have been at a new high. The Indian Air Force strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammad camp in Balakot, Pakistans retaliatory action in Jammu and Kashmir, and the bitter words that have been exchanged between New Delhi and Islamabad since then have fuelled the tensions.
Despite that, when Mr. Khan met with a group of foreign journalists for an interaction in Islamabad on Tuesday, he expressed the hope that India-Pakistan peace had a better chance under Mr. Modi He also said, If the next Indian government were led by the opposition Congress party, it might be too scared to seek a settlement with Pakistan over disputed… Kashmir, fearing a backlash from the right, according to Australian Broadcasting correspondent.
Perhaps if the BJP – a right-wing party – wins, some kind of settlement in Kashmir could be reached, Mr. Khan told the group adding that he believed Mr. Modi too would be interested to restart dialogue despite the current impasse.
There will be two Narendra Modis one before the election, one after, Mr. Khan said, referring to the BJPs campaign based on fear and nationalistic feeling. It should be remembered that Mr. Khans political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) fought the Pakistan general elections last year with a similar rhetoric.
So whats behind the Mr. Khans comments, especially as they come right on eve of elections in India?
Mr. Khan was speaking to a group of international media including reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, ABC television and others, most of whom had been invited to Pakistan to meet with the Prime Minister and the members of the cabinet, and were briefed by the Military as well.
Pakistan faces rigorous investigations by the IMF, where Mr. Khans government has applied for loans. The Financial Action Task Force is conducting a review ahead of a meeting in June where Pakistan, which is on the greylist could be blacklisted if it doesnt show credible action on terror. At this time, Mr. Khans words espousing dialogue with India are equally aimed at the US, the EU and the Gulf countries, which would like to see bilateral tensions ease.
During the interview, Mr. Khan also spoke of action being taken against terror groups including the Jaish-e-Mohammad, although maintaining the unverified line that its chief Masood Azhar is ill and not really in charge right now.
2. Pakistan wants to show focus on restarting dialogue
Despite the fact that there has been no sustained dialogue process between India and Pakistan since 2008, Pakistans establishment has consistently held that it would like to pursue dialogue with India.
Mr. Khans statement fits in with this long-standing policy of pushing for talks, while New Delhi holds that there can be no talks until terror ends.
Mr. Khan has given interviews previously too, including to a group of Indian journalists in November 2018 where he said that he believes the Indian government will be more open to engagement after the elections.
Mr. Khans comments are also aimed at portraying him as the more reasonable interlocutor, and comes at the time when Pakistans Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi alleged that he had credible intelligence that India is planning more strikes on Pakistan between April 16 and 20.
3. Hardliners have been bigger risk-takers on India-Pakistan
There is a general belief in Pakistan that only hardliners non-Congress leaders in India can sell peace with Pakistan. While in Opposition, they are a formidable opponent of talks with Pakistan, but once in power; they are best placed to take peace initiatives.
This belief borne out by history. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who led India during the Kargil war, and campaigned in both 1998 and 1999 elections with nationalistic, anti-Pakistan rhetoric, was also the Prime Minister who visited Pakistan twice once in February 1998 for the Lahore summit and in January 2004 for the SAARC summit.
Despite General Musharrafs role in the Kargil war, the then NDA government also invited him to Agra for talks in 2000.
Similarly, when Mr. Modi took office in 2014, he began with an invitation to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other SAARC leaders to attend his swearing-in, and then travelled to Lahore in December 2015. After the Pathankot terror attack, the Modi government invited a Pakistani team of investigators to travel to the airbase to facilitate a joint investigation.
Pakistan had conferred Morarji Desai with the Nishan-e-Pakistan in 1990, despite the fact that he had once threatened to destroy Pakistan if it used a nuclear weapon.
In comparison, Manmohan Singh, who was seen as a peacenik for pursuing the four-step formula in Kashmir and even after trying to sustain the dialogue process for years, never visited Pakistan once. He was unable to convince even his own party to back the peace process after the Mumbai attacks.
Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao also did not travel to Pakistan during their tenures. While the outcomes of their Pakistan policies may be judged differently, there seems little question that the bigger risks have been taken by the hawks, not the doves in Indias leadership.
4. Hyper nationalistic neighbours help hardliners domestically too
While Mr. Khan has been critical of Mr. Modis election speeches against Pakistan, and the comments about minorities made by the BJPs leadership, the truth is that nothing suits him more.
Pakistans leadership believes that Jinnahs two-nation theory, which advocated two majoritarian religious states a Muslim Pakistan and a Hindu India can only be realised if political parties in India too advocate a non-secular approach in government. In addition, any threats by leaders in India against Pakistan bolster the PTI governments hyper nationalist rhetoric with its domestic constituency as well.
5. National Security is common policy driver, and thats not all
Mr. Khans rise to power has often been compared to Mr. Modi: both have a strong belief in hard power politics, and have promoted tough national security policies.
While Mr. Modis strikes in Uri were not met with any counter-force by Pakistan under Mr.Sharif; after the Balakot strikes, when the IAF hit a target in undisputed Pakistani territory, Mr. Khan said he had no choice but to retaliate with air force action in Jammu and Kashmir along the LoC.
Both leaders have always campaigned as outsiders to the system and won elections on anti-corruption planks, while both their parties promote a majoritarian line that has caused concerns amongst minorities in their respective countries.
In that sense, Mr. Khan, who last met Mr. Modi in December 2015, and has spoken to him on the phone and exchanged letters after he was elected in August 2018, may feel that he has a working understanding of Mr. Modi. It is not unlikely, therefore, that if Mr. Modi is re-elected to power on May 23rd, one of the first congratulatory calls he will receive will be from Mr. Khan.
The Article First Appeared In THE HINDU
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