Imran Khan's Ouster Is Good News, But Don't Hold Your Breath For A Breakthrough In India-Pakistan Relations
The hope of a breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations following Khan's removal is premature, if not entirely misplaced.
Many in India appear to believe that Imran Khan's ouster from power in Islamabad has opened the door for better ties with Pakistan. It is not only the Aman ki Asha brigade, the infamous peaceniks, who see the change in Islamabad as a chance for a thaw. Some serious experts too seem to think that the new government in Pakistan, led by the Sharifs and the Zardaris, will enable better ties with India, leading to a breakthrough.
The hope of a breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations following Khan's removal, however, is premature, if not entirely misplaced.
While the new government in Pakistan may well want better ties with India, the intent alone will not make any difference. It does not have the time or the political space needed for a breakthrough in ties with India.
The next general elections in Pakistan are due in October 2023, less than two years from now. The opposition, which will now form the new government, may want to call an early election after it has consolidated power and built up momentum in its favour. It will not want to be in charge for long before the elections for fear of becoming unpopular — the new prime minister will have to make tough policy choices to revive the economy and fill up the state's coffers.
In such a scenario, the Sharifs and the Zardaris will not want to be seen reaching out to New Delhi for better ties, even if the decision to do so was made in Rawalpindi and not Islamabad. They will have to take a visibly tough stand on trade and relations with India to deny Khan the space to project himself as more nationalistic than them.
Khan has been using the conspiracy theory that his ouster from power was engineered by the United States along with the opposition to label them as "traitors". The last thing the new government would want is to give Khan another opportunity to build on it by reviving the narrative he had used against Nawaz Sharif ahead of the 2018 election — recall the slogan "Modi ka jo yaar hai, woh gaddar hai, gaddar hai (friend of Modi is a traitor)".
In fact, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) appear to be trying to preempt Khan by launching their own campaign on a similar plank. They trained their guns on Khan after he praised India's independent foreign policy on multiple occasions over the last few weeks. Nawaz Sharif's brother Shahbaz Sharif, who will lead the coalition government in Islamabad, is already toeing the establishment line that India, "particularly under Modi", has hurt Pakistan's interest. On Kashmir, he has taken a stand not very different from Khan's.
Most of this rhetoric may be for public consumption, but the political realities of the day will not allow the new government in Pakistan to take a very different approach to relations with India.
While the new government after the next general election will be better placed to make concessions needed for a breakthrough with India, it will again be premature to assume that it is a given.
Khan may have been removed from power in Islamabad, but he remains a formidable player in the country's politics — large crowds have turned out at protests against his ouster. With the 'foreign interference' theory that he has peddled, Khan has re-energised his base and drummed up support, and may well manage to evade the consequences of his mishandling of the economy with a hyper-nationalistic and Islamist narrative.
The Shahbaz Sharif-led coalition of PPP, PML-N and other smaller parties has managed to prevail over the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) for now, but it remains fragile. The only thing keeping these parties together is the opposition to Khan. But once in power, fissures could emerge within the coalition over the sharing of power (and seats, if they contest together in the upcoming election).
Unlike Imran Khan, the new government in Islamabad may not actively sabotage initiatives for talks with India, but it may not be willing to be on board with the army for an open dialogue with India to legitimise the gains that appear to have been made in back-channel discussions.
While the final call on Pakistan's relations with India will be made at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, the prospects of a breakthrough in ties between the two countries don't look much brighter than before.
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