Mr Khan, Mr Modi and ‘hugplomacy’

Published November 26, 2018
The Indian prime minister’s relationship with Pakistan has seen several ups and downs. — AFP/File
The Indian prime minister’s relationship with Pakistan has seen several ups and downs. — AFP/File

BILATERAL ties between India and Pakistan always generate a lot of heat and controversy in both the countries, and leaders and their supporters strive to project themselves as ‘anti’ Pakistan or India, as the case may be, in a bid to ‘mollify’ their backers.

The election of Imran Khan as Pakistan’s prime minister in August saw the former skipper significantly tone down his previous anti-India sentiments, which were intense and evident throughout the election campaign.

And naturally, with elections due in April-May next year in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi can be expected to sharpen verbal attacks on his Pakistani counterpart over the coming months, and refuse to be seen as someone who is comfortable with Imran Khan.

Of course, the fact is that the erstwhile Pakistani skipper still has a strong following at least among Indian cricket fans, many of who soft-pedal on his anti-India sentiments as mere politicking.

But during the run-up to the elections in Pakistan, Mr Khan had lashed out at his rival Nawaz Sharif, accusing him of reaching out to Mr Modi.

The Indian prime minister’s relationship with Pakistan has seen several ups and downs. For his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014, Mr Modi invited all leaders from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and then Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif was one of the key participants.

If Mr Modi and the BJP-led coalition get re-elected, the chances are that it will continue to work for better relations with Pakistan

More than a year later, Mr Modi made a surprise landing in Lahore en route from Kabul to wish Mr Sharif on his birthday and to attend his grand-daughter’s engagement ceremony. The Indian prime minister has been projected as being close to his then Pakistani counterpart.

The Congress took on Mr Modi recently for his close ties with Mr Sharif after the latter was convicted in a corruption case. “Nawaz Sharif has been arrested on corruption charges,” the party tweeted along with an image of the two leaders holding hands. “We’d like to know what his dear friend, PM Modi, has to say about this.”

Even Mr Khan has often referred to the close ties between Mr Modi and Mr Sharif; during the election campaign, he had accused the two leaders of disrupting law and order in Pakistan and creating border tensions to ensure “a favourable environment” for the PML-N.

“Beginning to wonder why whenever Nawaz Sharif is in trouble, there is increased tension along Pakistan’s borders and a rise in terrorist acts? Is it mere coincidence?” Mr Khan had tweeted in July.

Of course, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has hit back at the Congress for the close ties of some of its leaders with Mr Khan’s party.

Last month, former cricketer and Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu (who was also a BJP member of parliament before joining the Congress) was criticised by the BJP for accepting the invitation to be present at Mr Khan’s swearing-in ceremony and for being hugged by the Pakistani army chief.

While the BJP and even Mr Modi have been critical of Mr Sidhu’s ‘collusion’ with Pakistan, even Amarinder Singh, the outspoken Congress chief minister of Punjab — Mr Sidhu is a minister in his cabinet — had lashed out at him for his ‘hugplomacy.’

Many political observers in India believe that ties with its neighbour will continue to remain tense at least till after the elections in May. Of course, if Mr Modi and the BJP-led coalition gets re-elected, the chances are that it will continue to work for better relations with Pakistan.

After the PTI appeared confident of forming a government late in July, Mr Khan assured India that if it took one step to improve relations, he was willing to step ahead with two. And when Mr Modi called him after his victory, he spoke of a new innings in ties between the two nations.

IN August, after taking over as prime minister, Mr Khan had written to Mr Modi suggesting that the foreign ministers of the two countries meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September.

While improving ties with Pakistan ranks way down on the list of priorities for the Modi government facing the electorate in a few months, even for Mr Khan it is quite low in terms of priorities.

The Pakistani premier said recently that he believes the reason for the ‘anti-Pakistan rhetoric’ in India was the forthcoming general elections in the neighbouring country. He said talks with India might resume only after the elections.

Importantly, the Pakistani premier is also engaged in a deepening row with the Donald Trump regime in the US and has been involved in a fierce twitter battle with the American leader.

Mr Trump, in an interview with his favourite Fox News, had condemned Pakistan, accusing the government of not doing “a damn thing for us”.

A high-ranking American diplomat was summoned by Pakistan’s foreign secretary last week to lodge a strong protest against Mr Trump’s “unwarranted and unsubstantiated” hitting out at Islamabad.

Mr Khan is now involved in a twitter-warfare with Mr Trump, and both leaders are exchanging bitter notes that have sidelined other issues.

And in recent days, Mr Khan — who has been travelling to different countries including China, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia — has been rather gentle on ties with India.

He reiterated Pakistan’s moves to improve ties with its neighbour and to settle outstanding disputes between the two countries.

At an interactive session of the Future Investment Initiative held in Riyadh last month, Mr Khan said peace with India was important for both the countries. “The money that should be diverted to human resources ends up in non-productive arms race,” he told the gathering. Peace with India and Afghanistan was important for Pakistan, he added.

India is also hoping that Mr Khan would help develop business and trade ties between the two countries. While India has already granted the Most Favoured Nation status to Pakistan, it wants the Khan-led government to bestow the same status to it soon.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 26th, 2018


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