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November 24, 2018

Imran to take a step on 28th, can Modi too?


November 24, 2018

Efforts to normalize relations between Pakistan and India - the two nuclear South Asian antagonists - have a history of snagging. Both have real or imaginary reasons to blame each other for the deadlock every now and then. Three-and-a-half wars aside, Islamabad and Delhi have continued to stress their desire to improve relations and normalize ties even if there are elements within both countries that are working for the opposite.

Many would term Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statements after forming his government about his desire to improve relations with India as cosmetic. Because all Pakistani rulers – civil or martial – have been saying the same. Debate, however, is not about the content. It is about the intent. In his first public address to the nation, PM Khan said he was ready to take two steps towards India if India took one so that the relations could move towards normalization.

But he was firm on core points. “If we want to have a poverty-free subcontinent then we must have good relations and trade ties. The core issue is Kashmir. We need to resolve this. Blame game should end….Kashmiris have been suffering for long. If India’s leadership is willing then the both of us can solve this issue through dialogue. It will be good for the subcontinent also,” he said.

Banking possibly on the goodwill in India built during his cricketing years, PM Khan was confident of a positive Indian response to his posturing. Less than warm response from the Indian public-opinion makers must have come as a reality check. Hence his remarks: “I was saddened by the way Indian media recently projected me. They portrayed me as a Bollywood villain. I am one of those Pakistanis who wants good relations with India.”

And then how can one forget the Sidhu moment. The former Indian cricketer’s coming to Pakistan on Imran Khan’s invitation to attend his oath-taking, his meeting the prime minister made news headlines in Pakistan and India. But what made millions of Indians go wild against their own sporting star and popular TV commentator/host was his brief exchange of words and a bear hug with the Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

“Curse on you Sidhu Sahib. Curse on you. How would you answer to your country and your people,” was how one Indian tweeted. One reason for Sidhu’s impromptu bear hug could have been the informal but firm promise by the Pakistani Army Chief that Pakistan would open the border at Kartarpur Sahib crossing when [the Sikh community] celebrates the 550th birthday of Baba Guru Nanak. We know the hopes of improvement in bilateral relations took a nosedive when India refused a foreign ministers meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations yearly gathering in New York. But Pakistan did not go back on its words on Karatarpur crossing. In an interview with a leading Indian publication, Pakistani information minister Fawad Chaudhry had reaffirmed Pakistan’s position. “This is an issue of the ordinary people, Sikhs and other Indian pilgrims, and an issue of faith. They should not suffer.” He had a point. Thousands of Sikhs live in Pakistan and the mixing of two communities world provide a groundswell of support to peace lovers in South Asia.

Sadly, India, of late has adopted a line about its relationship with Pakistan that seems to originate in Washington DC. The line, though wrapped up in diplomatic nuances, was aptly narrated by a Pentagon official in a recent event organized by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Many new governments come to power in Islamabad and want to improve relations with India but then soon face realities and difficulties, Randall G Schriver, US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs was quoted as saying at the event.

Intriguingly, Mr Schriver went on to say: “We want to give the new prime minister of the new government of Pakistan space to explore where there may be opportunities to improve relations with India.” The American official’s opinion can be pushed to the wayside as condescending attitude by an overconfident bureaucrat but similar suggestions were doing the rounds in Islamabad’s power corridor in the last 24 hours. “Are we going to open the Kartarpur [border crossing] after the visits by Alice Wells [US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South & Central Asia] or is there a double pressure from the US and the European Union.”

We know that the Americans may not change their attitude towards Islamabad lightly now. The DC crowd does not like Pakistan’s shift towards Beijing. For years, they have been asking Pakistan to “trust” India despite the latter’s questionable ingress in Afghanistan. Pakistan was not ready for that for very obvious reasons. What has happened to Pakistan since 9/11, the death and destruction on Pakistani streets and in Pakistani cities, the rise in militancy in different parts of the country, the arrests of foreign spooks on Pakistani territory have seriously shattered the confidence in its “friends”. Trusting a sworn enemy was a plain impossibility. But then, Pakistan decided it is ready to take the necessary difficult steps for regional peace and stability.

Next week, Prime Minister Imran Khan is set to open the Kartarpur Sahib border crossing. The opening must be seen as one of the first Pakistani steps the Prime Minister promised to normalize relations with India despite Delhi’s harder-than-desired attitude. Elements within Indian establishment and the ruling party would be tempted to paint it as a Pakistani effort to forge new alliances within the Indian Punjab to rekindle the Sikh struggle for an independent Khalistan. The area’s proximity to the Indian-held Kashmir could be used to discredit Pakistan’s earnest move too.

But India must reciprocate the Pakistani initiative with an open mind so that fostering peace could be given a boost and living conditions could be improved for religious minorities in South Asia. The best way for India to respond to PM Khan’s proposition would be the presence of Prime Minister Modi in the event. But would the wily fox of modern Indian politics turn up at Kartarpur crossing if sent an official invite the Pakistani Prime Minister in the next couple of days. His attendance, though highly unlikely, will not only give a much needed boost to the frosty relations between Islamabad and Delhi but may also improve the electoral chances of his militant Hindutva BJP in the forthcoming elections in the Indian Punjab and brush up his cult following among the non-Muslim Indians as a serious peacenik. After all, he had dropped in uninvited to attend the marriage ceremony of former Pakistani prime minister’s granddaughter.

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