In the recent firefight between India and Pakistan following the Pulwama attack, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan showed a maturity rarely displayed by any of his predecessors. However much we’d like to believe that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was repatriated because of international pressure, it is entirely possible that Khan, overruling his army, ordered his release to establish himself as a voice of reason.
India lost the chance to gracefully accept its downed pilot’s release by Pakistan and loosen just a bit of the grip of Pakistan’s generals over Khan. Instead of viewing Khan as a stooge of the Pakistan army, India must start working with him to achieve a durable peace by notching up a series of small successes that could lead to bigger ones. Each of these, like the steps taken to open the Kartarpur corridor, will likely build up Khan’s capacity to be his own man and stand up to an army that in the past has always scuttled any peace move with India.
Indeed, Khan might be different from his predecessors, having been a much-loved national hero long before he became Prime Minister. He continues to be popular and admired by Pakistan’s youth who make up much of that country’s population. As Madiha Afzal states in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Khan is no pushover for the army.
Khan is widely perceived to be honest, unlike his immediate civilian predecessors, and might well have a genuine desire to better the lot of his people. Khan also realises Pakistan’s terrible predicament — broke and caught in a Chinese debt trap it cannot talk about, besieged by militants within, and facing an India with a new-found determination to hit back when hurt.
For 71 years Indians have made Pakistan central to their lives. India’s greatest joy is when it beats Pakistan on the battlefield or the cricket pitch or corners it in the United Nations. Indians have built up Pakistan as a formidable adversary, which it is not.
Just one State in India, Uttar Pradesh, has a population than is larger than Pakistan’s. India is about four times bigger than Pakistan area-wise. And its GDP, in PPP terms, is about 10 times greater. To Pakistan it is India that is a formidable enemy, one at whose hands it has suffered violent vivisection and a monumental military defeat. It is no wonder then that Pakistan is paranoid about India and has always leveraged its only strength, a much more strategic location, to corner it. In . Khan India now has a popular Pakistani leader it should engage with. He is India’s best bet in years to ensure a durable peace with Pakistan, including on the Kashmir issue. It is in India’s interest to reach out to Mr. Khan boldly and with hope.