Nobody was expecting or knew what to make of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s latest comments on Indian elections, a day before the first phase of voting began. He was reported as saying he sees a better chance of peace talks with India if PM Narendra Modi’s BJP wins the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Khan said if the Congress came to power, it might be “too scared” to seek a settlement with Pakistan on Kashmir, fearing a backlash. “Perhaps if the BJP—a right-wing party—wins, some kind of settlement in Kashmir could be reached,” Reuters reported him as saying.
The statement has come under heavy scrutiny for its ramifications on the ongoing election, and also because it defies the narrative India’s ruling party has fostered thus far. Does this potentially historic claim hold the key to peace for the nuclear-armed neighbours? Qrius explores.
Responses: sarcasm, silence & confusion
While the Ministry of External Affairs, usually vocal on such matters, went into complete silence on the matter, severe criticism poured in from the Opposition, which BJP has often accused of “speaking Pakistan’s language”; increasingly so, during the last leg of the election campaign post-Pulwama attack.
Leaders from the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and Jammu and Kashmir politicians Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti seized the chance to get back at the PM and the ruling party.
“Pakistan has officially allied with Modi! A vote for Modi is a vote for Pakistan,” tweeted Congress spokesperson Randeep Sing Surjewala. “Modi-ji, first Nawaz Sharif, now Imran Khan is your friend. The secret is out,” he added.
The Congress has been targeted relentlessly for questioning the government on the Balakot air strike in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack; PM Modi had even said the Congress manifesto was made more for Pakistan than India.
“Why does Pakistan want Modi-ji to win? PM Modi, please tell the nation how deep your relationship is with Pakistan? All Indians should know that if PM Modi wins, then crackers will be burst in Pakistan,” tweeted AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal.
Omar Abdullah, former Jammu and Kashmir CM, who Modi had attacked over his recent comments on a separate PM for the state under the terms of accession, tweeted: “So much for Modi Sahib telling the country only Pakistan and its sympathisers want BJP to lose. Imran Khan has just endorsed him for a 2nd term.”
Why Khan endorsed a Hindu nationalist party
On a surface level, Khan’s support comes as an open endorsement of the ruling government, one unbound by the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct. But it’s more than a story of two unsecular hardliners colliding in the mutual interests of a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan.
As Suhasini Haidar writes for The Hindu, “According to diplomatic protocol, foreign leaders normally shy away from commenting on domestic political outcomes, apart from bland platitudes about ‘working with whoever wins elections’.”
Shekhar Gupta writing for The Print concurs. “It is hard to recall a serving Pakistani chief executive take such a clear position on his (or her) preferred outcome of an Indian election,” he says.
This, he adds, points to a dangerous trend, one where India’s politics is increasingly becoming Pakistan’s internal affairs. And condemnation be damned—not a single peep has been heard from the MEA in response to this attempt at political interference.
This only suggests that Khan, whose government is constantly villainised, and for political gains at times, has quite deftly turned the tables; and given the fact that the BJP has walked into a trap of its own making, its discomfiture is well-earned.
And why he may not be wrong
There is, however, a grain of truth to Khan’s ostensibly absurd claim, argues Mihir Swarup Sharma. Writing for NDTV, he resorts to the “Nixon goes to China” argument to evince that, in democratic polities, “it is often the more right-wing elements that are able to get away with compromises or de-escalation with countries long denounced as an enemy”.
That is further corroborated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s role in inviting General Pervez Musharraf to Agra for talks in 2000 (NDA), despite his role in the Kargil War.
Similarly, when Modi took office in 2014, he began with an invitation to then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and other SAARC leaders to attend his swearing-in, and then himself travelled to Lahore in December 2015.
Khan’s statement, therefore, is a criticism of Congress, more than anything else; the party’s reticence to take peace talks forward between 2004 and 2014 is likely to continue if elected once again, Khan believes, and rightly so.
How BJP’s fixation with the Hindutva narrative percolated into the unenviable position it finds itself in right now is another story.
A warped narrative
By pivoting their campaign on one consistent slogan, namely that a vote for the Opposition is a vote for Pakistan, the BJP has turned the election into a smorgasbord of hyper-nationalism.
BJP leaders have relentlessly criticised the Congress for being soft on national security, but their most egregious strategy has involved turning the poll narrative to equate political foes with international enemies.
“It is one thing to say that you will be tougher on national security than your opponents. That is a legitimate political claim, however true or untrue it may be in this case. But claiming that your opponents are in league with the enemy is another thing altogether. It is frankly beyond the pale for an election campaign to be constructed around such a claim,” wrote Sharma.
So whether or not Khan really has peace in Kashmir on his mind is, for the moment, moot. (Even if his military has no reason to agitate for peace, it may behoove Khan to make a case for it, especially to keep the IMF close and the FATF at bay.)
Beating BJP at its own game?
But what matters right now is how well Khan has toppled BJP’s sole argument for its re-election: Modi is seeking a second term on the promise of teaching Pakistan a lesson, not for making peace.
Although Khan later clarified that his statements were misconstrued and that he did not wish for Modi’s win as an individual, the argument still holds. Modi’s personal political capital accounts for much of the party’s success.
Coming to BJP government’s own policies on national security, political analysts don’t believe they were significantly better, only more aggressive, leading to an extraordinary escalation of violence and ceasefire violations in Kashmir over the last five years. And while records do show that more discussions were opened up under the BJP government, they also show that talks were disorganised and unceremoniously suspended.
One other thing that is of note: Relations between Pakistan and India worsened dramatically in February after a suicide bombing killed 40 soldiers in the Valley. With no sustained dialogue between India and Pakistan since 2008, Khan’s and the Pakistani military’s reputation, however, received a huge bump post-Pulwama, owing both to the Indian government’s outspoken rhetoric and bungling.
Immediately afterward, Indian lawmakers began running an ultra-nationalist election campaign with Pakistan as the enemy. So Pakistan seized the opportunity and held up a mirror to BJP’s flawed one-note campaign—by wanting the same government re-elected.
It is also worth remembering that all of this plays out before an international audience (Khan made the statement before a group of international media, including reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, ABC), during the world’s largest election. If the MEA is watching this play out as closely, it’d better refrain from making an adversary into an agent of domestic polarisation next time.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.