Indian response to Imran Khan’s election victory in Pakistan

C. Uday Bhaskar
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Imran Khan the cricketer-turned-politician who will soon be sworn in as Pakistan’s Prime Minister is a familiar name and face in India and the not so surprising victory of his party PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) at the July 25 election has elicited a very modest and measured response from official India.

The spokesman of the Foreign Ministry had to be asked a question by a media representative (July 29) about the Modi government’s reaction to the PTI victory and the answer elicited was balanced:


“We welcome the fact that the people of Pakistan have reposed their faith in democracy through general elections. India desires a prosperous and progressive Pakistan at peace with its neighbors. We hope that the new Government of Pakistan will work constructively to build a safe, stable, secure and developed South Asia free of terror and violence.”

Those who monitor the testy diplomatic bi-lateral exchanges between the two neighboring nations and the sub-text, as also the inclusion of a certain word or phrase, or significant exclusions noticed that there was no reference to Imran Khan, the man of the election match.

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But neither did New Delhi join the US and the EU in casting any aspersions on the credibility of the election, or the pre-poll information “eclipse” that saw the media being gagged and coerced by the khakis (Pak army) into shaming former PM and jailed PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif and ensuring a PTI victory. This was followed by a courtesy phone call from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Imran Khan.

Next few months will be challenging for a charismatic politician who will be holding any high office for the first time and will have to walk the talk

C. Uday Bhaskar

Victory speech

In his first post victory speech, Imran Khan made the mandatory reference to seeking better relations with India and earnestly promised that if India took one step forward – then Pakistan under his leadership “would take two”. Predictably this was linked to a resolution of the Kashmir issue and hence unlikely to happen any time soon.

For the South Asia watcher, this was a case of déjà vu, for Khan’s jailed predecessor Nawaz Sharif had gone down this path in February 1999 when he received then Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Lahore and signed a peace declaration – much to the dismay of his Army Chief at the time, General Pervez Musharraf.

Vajpayee was the “enemy” PM as far as the army GHQ in Rawalpindi was concerned and peace with India was anathema, for that would have diluted the primacy of the khaki brigade in the power calculus of a nation that had just demonstrated its nuclear weapon capability in May 1998.

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A sullen Musharraf refused to salute Vajpayee in Lahore and very soon the covert intrusion by Pakistani troops in Kargil led to the limited Indo-Pak war of 1999. Kashmir remains intractable and in the intervening years, the terror eco-system in Pakistan has grown in size and intensity.

The Mumbai terror attack of November 2008 is a stark reminder of the reach of the state-supported terror challenge for the neighborhood and the assassination of Governor Salman Taseer in Punjab in January 2011 by his own bodyguard for a purported blasphemy transgression revealed how deeply civil society in Pakistan has internalized sectarian religious bigotry.

The “pitch” for an Imran Khan electoral victory is seen by many in India to have been enabled by the army and the religious right-wing constituency and cheered by a large section of the Pakistani media that has followed the Rawalpindi diktat.

Cynical reduction

Thus there is a cynical reduction in New Delhi that no matter what Khan declares in public now – even before he has assumed office – the issues relevant to India, namely Kashmir, support to terror groups and the nuclear saber-rattling will be determined by Rawalpindi and in an opaque manner, by Beijing.

Furthermore, the linkage between Pindi and Muridke, the headquarters of groups such as the Lashka-e-Tayyaba, points to the manner in which the religious right wing and its terror assets, as also the street power element can be calibrated to hobble the state apparatus. Imran Khan had effectively demonstrated this ability in his shrill campaign against the Nawaz Sharif government in late 2016.

The assessment of the mainstream Indian media is illustrative. The Indian Express noted editorially (July 27): “While the world can only wait for the Imran government’s policies, it is safe to assume that he will be more willingly guided by the Pakistan Army than the two predecessor governments. In interviews and other remarks, he has projected a hardline position on Kashmir, trade with India, and other bilateral issues….what has been truly worrying in these elections is the so-called mainstreaming of the jihadi-terrorist-militant-extremist groups, who put up candidates.”

The Hindu (July 27) observed editorially about the many “tests” for the next PM of Pakistan: “Mr. Khan will also have to tackle terror groups inside Pakistan, those that target Pakistani forces and those trained with Pakistan’s support to target its neighbors. It is here that Prime Minister Khan will be most tested; these groups function with impunity, and it remains to be seen whether his softness during the campaign against them will carry over into the primeministership.”

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For many Indians, a satirical column from the Pakistani media that dwelt on ‘Im the Dim’ has created an image of a cricketer-playboy who has now turned to religion and has an attention deficit disorder.

In the last week, salacious excerpts from a book by Khan’s estranged wife Reham Khan having been doing the rounds and her interviews have been widely published and circulated on social media. Some of her remarks will be pondered over, as for instance this one: “Don’t go by the ‘Im the Dim’ image, he’s not dim. He can be Machiavellian in politics.”

And as regards the immediate future – Reham Khan offers a vivid thumb-nail assessment about Imran Khan for Indian readers: “He (Khan) knows he has stolen the mandate. They (the army) wanted a boot polisher, and right now no one polishes boots better than him. But I think the benevolence will be short-lived.”

It is unlikely that Indian PM Modi will be invited for the swearing in of PM Imran Khan on August 11.

However, the next few months will be challenging for a charismatic politician who will be holding high office (any office) for the first time and will have to walk the talk with an electorate, which has huge expectations and an army that has its own game-plan for its protégé.

India will be watching as to who will prevail.
Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets. @theUdayB.

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