Red zone files: Who will bell the cat?

Updated February 27, 2020


PM Khan is brilliant in terms of confidence but not-so-brilliant in details. — AA/File
PM Khan is brilliant in terms of confidence but not-so-brilliant in details. — AA/File

FOR once, it has been a good week.

Prime Minister Imran Khan may be lording over a governance train wreck in slow motion, but on the external front he is captaining Pakistan to a good score. A combination of his personality strengths, regional politics and India’s descent into bigoted mayhem is providing Pakis­tan a window of opportunity to set things right in the foreign policy arena. It is also providing the embattled prime minister a chance to repair his bruised and battered image at home.

Consider the whirlwind happenings of the last few days: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had a fantastic visit to Pakistan. From our end, it was well-planned, professionally managed, and flawlessly executed. If there were any hiccups, they did not register publicly.

The secretary general’s visit produced excellent optics and picture-perfect photo-ops for Pakistan as a country at peace with itself and its neighbours; a country that’s also doing its international duty by providing the services of its uniformed women and men as international peacekeepers. The civil and military leaders coordinated well and deserve credit for the success of the visit and the dividends that it will generate in the weeks and months to come.

This is also important because of another reason: the last time Prime Minister Khan and Secretary General Guterres met, things did not go too well. The meeting had happened after the PM’s famous speech on Kashmir at the UN General Assembly. The PM had a formal delegation-level meeting with the secretary general who, by the way, is also a politician and a former prime minister of Portugal. In that meeting, the secretary general gave some feedback to the PM on his speech — of course in very diplomatic language — which the PM apparently did not find too helpful.

The mood of the meeting darkened a bit and it ended on a not-too-happy note. The secretary general’s Pakistan visit must have washed off the memory of that meeting and supplanted it with more pleasant ones gathered here.

US President Donald Trump then went to India and gave Pakistan an unexpected diplomatic boost. In front of huge Indian audiences he said he enjoyed a good relationship with PM Khan, and also said he would be willing to mediate on the Kashmir issue, thereby raising the matter on Indian soil.

The ‘softening’ of Trump may be the result of many factors, including geopolitical reasons as well as his needs in Afghanistan, but there is no doubt that a major factor is his personal chemistry with Imran Khan. This is a huge bonus for Pakistan and is acknowledged as such by diplomats in Islamabad’s Red Zone. This fits in with the personality traits of the PM that have emerged since he has occupied the high office.

According to insiders who have seen him interacting at the international stage, PM Khan is brilliant in terms of confidence but not-so-brilliant in details. He is ill-read on talking points, diplomatic briefs and background papers on the person he is meeting and the agenda that requires to be discussed, but he is clued-up on talking about Pakistan in general.

His celebrity persona helps tremendously as world leaders have heard so much about him and are curious to meet him. Doors open. Meetings happen. Contact is made. People close to the PM say ideally he should be steered away from meetings and situations that bring out his weaknesses and encouraged into interactions and opportunities that accentuate his strengths. But who will bell the cat?

Trump’s India visit coincided with the anti-Muslim pogrom carried out by Hindutva zealots in New Delhi. The random and unchecked killing, looting and arson by Hindu fanatics and the seemingly deliberate inaction by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has proven PM Khan’s predictions about Indian fascism correct.

As India descends into anti-Muslim, hate-driven chaos and mayhem, Pakistan and Imran Khan have a great opportunity to draw a contrast. This plays to the PM’s strength. He can take the higher moral ground (which he does well), remind the world of what he had warned about (which he has) and reiterate how he will ensure a Pakistan that is tolerant, inclusive, non-discriminatory and progressive towards minorities, women and all weaker segments of society. Now is the perfect time for the PM to go on a diplomatic offensive with this messaging while Modi walks around with blood on his hands and raging fires of communal hate in his backyard.

If this wasn’t a good enough opportunity, the first anniversary of Pakistan’s downing of two Indian fighter aircraft also falls in the same week. This is a feel-good moment and is being observed as such. High in the air above the LoC on February 27, the bubble of India’s huge delusion had burst in a gigantic ball of fire and crashed on the ground along with the debris of a billion people’s aspiration of grandeur. The bloody nose was not Abhinandan’s alone.

The days leading up to Balakot after the Pulwama attack by a lone Kashmiri and the immediate aftermath of the downing of Indian planes by PAF constituted PM Khan’s finest hour. Since then it has been downhill. This week provides an opportunity for him to display that side of his persona that saw him managing last February’s national security crisis with confidence, grace and dignity above and beyond what his Indian counterpart could show.

PM Khan may have miscalculated Modi’s intentions, but he has not wavered from his rhetoric about desiring peace between Pakistan and India. It is up to his team in the Red Zone to ensure that he does not miss the moments and the momentum they have generated this week to claw his way back to genuine relevance in the larger affairs of the state. But who will bell the cat?

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2020