Imran Khan's personal history gives him a leg up in trying to start a dialogue on Kashmir and moving towards ending the 72-year stalemate with India.
As the dust begins to settle on a frenetic dose of military, diplomatic and social media activity across the India Pakistan border, international powers and media are starting to welcome the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s generous gesture of releasing the downed Indian pilot at a time of extreme tension.
It was no mean feat given the war hysteria in both countries and a domestic constituency which does not favour giving an inch in the high stakes diplomacy that is the India Pakistan crisis. Imran Khan’s staunch ally and Minister of Railways, Sheikh Rasheed opposed the release of the pilot, even the liberal and level headed Senator Sherry Rehman of the Pakistan People Party (PPP) was questioning the rush to release the captured pilot.
In his first six months, Imran Khan has proven his critics wrong on some counts and has carried out a balanced foreign policy based on self-respect and economic prosperity. On the critical issue of India, Imran Khan has always said he knows India and Indians better than any other Pakistani.
It is not an exaggeration to say in Khan – India has the best chance for a meaningful dialogue and peace with Pakistan.
Imran Khan and India
On Imran’s rise to power in August last year, the Indian media were cautiously optimistic given Khan’s relationship with India. According to India Today, Khan is easily the ‘most well-known Pakistani in India for the last four decades’.
Leading Indian broadcaster and author Barkha Dutt wrote in the Washington Post that Khan's closeness to the Pakistani Army and his familiarity with Indian society is a good thing for Delhi. He has been a regular on Indian talk shows and has a close relationship with India’s social elite in Bollywood – indeed in the Indian social and political hierarchy his access to two of the most important things in India, cricket and film stars, has been his main ticket to Indian hearts.
For his inauguration, he invited three famous cricket stars of which only one, Navjot Singh Sidhu, attended. This then led to the ‘Sikh diplomacy’ and Kartarpur corridor, dubbed by the BBC as the road to peace.
It is this kind of access and understanding of India that Khan touts when he says, "he knows India better than any other Pakistani."
Khan has also previously become the first Pakistani to invite famous Bollywood stars such as Amir Khan to raise money for his cancer charity and India’s biggest star of all, Amitabh Bachan, has previously raised money for Khan’s charity.
In India, film and cricket stars carry political weight and Khan has used this to his advantage so far – however, he also met the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 and struck up a personal connection. This connection has come in handy during the current crisis and can go a long way towards a meaningful search for dialogue.
Modi – Khan Connection
During the recent tensions, Modi reminded Khan of the promise they made to each to reduce poverty and work together for the betterment of the region. It is this connection between the two as populist leaders against the established status quo that has also given hope to Indian writers, who despite questioning Imran Khan’s military backing admire him for his honesty and desire to reduce poverty and tension in the region and work together on trade and economic prosperity.
Khan has, in his two speeches since the crisis, repeated the mantra of an all-out dialogue without conditions and the need to work on peace and alleviation of poverty. He has also said that any intelligence provided by India would be dealt with, in fact, he has already signalled a crackdown on anti-India militants.
Pakistan’s current Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi also became the first official to say that India has a role in Afghanistan – another significant concession by the Khan government. Previously no other Pakistani government has ever called for Indian cooperation in Afghanistan and instead said India must keep out.
Too soon for peace – but talks will be meaningful
It is perhaps too early to talk of peace and at least until Modi wins another election could we see a meaningful dialogue between the two.
Personal connections between leaders have brought the two countries close to peace before. In 1980, the Pakistani military leader, President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, became close.
In his book, The Great Game in Afghanistan, Kallol Bhattacherjee details the talks between Gandhi and Zia on the fate of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, relations with Moscow and the US and, most importantly, the stability of South Asia.
Like the Zia–Rajiv meetings, Pakistani military leader General Pervez Musharraf and then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee came close at a 2002 summit in Agra to resolving the Kashmir conflict despite a year-long tense situation on the border.
However, this time the leader in Pakistan is not a General but a well-respected Pakistani, indeed someone most Indians admire, and Delhi needs to take advantage of this.
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