After cobbling together a coalition government last month, cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf Party, has assumed office as the prime minister of the country. In the wake of his electoral victory, Khan indicated a willingness to improve relations with India. However, as with almost any Pakistani politician, to no great surprise, he also made clear that the territorial dispute over the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir remained the “core” issue in India- Pakistan relations.
The key question to ask now is whether a new government in Islamabad is any reason to believe that a rapprochement can ensue in India- Pakistan relations? The literature on interstate rivalries suggests that a new regime in a country can bring a new set of expectations and thereby open new avenues for conflict resolution. Unfortunately, there is little in Khan’s background that suggests that he has novel ideas about how best to deal with India.
Since his recent foray into politics and especially on the campaign trail, Khan spouted fairly nationalist and fiery rhetoric. Nothing in his speeches suggested a desire to seek reconciliation with India. Furthermore, even if he were so inclined, it is far from clear that he will be in any position to undertake unilateral actions to improve relations with India.
As many commentators have persuasively argued, Khan was the distinct beneficiary of the staunch support of Pakistan’s overweening military establishment. Worse still, others including members of Pakistan’s opposition parties have argued that the military, as well as Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, did much to assist Khan in winning the election. Under these circumstances, Khan is more than likely to be beholden to the country’s security apparatus, which has almost no interest in improving ties with India.
Apart from these political impediments, it is highly likely that Khan will be preoccupied with more immediate and pressing problems that confront Pakistan. With its economy in shambles, the country is now on the verge of seeking a US $12 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Trying to place the economy on an even keel is likely to consume the energies of the nascent coalition government.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went through the customary practice of calling and congratulating Khan on his victory. This ritualistic gesture notwithstanding, Modi is unlikely to embark on any effort to try and improve relations with Pakistan as India is gearing up for a national election next year. Any Indian government, when preparing to contest a national election, does not embark upon such risky endeavours. The Modi government is likely to be especially risk-averse.
Long before Khan’s electoral triumph, however, India-Pakistan relations had reached a particularly low ebb for a number of compelling reasons. Unlike its predecessors, Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) adopted a tough stance toward Pakistan from the outset. In the wake of Pakistan’s connection to terrorist attacks in India, which could be traced to Islamabad, the BJP ended an on-going dialogue. In 2015, Modi’s government not only authorised, but actually publicised, a cross-border ‘surgical strike’ to avenge Pakistan-based terrorist strikes on Indian soil.
To compound matters, thanks to its own ineptitude and myopic policies, India faces a popular insurrection within a portion of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. With the Kashmir Valley in turmoil the Indian government is not in a position to tackle any nettlesome issues with Pakistan. Finally, few within the BJP’s political constituency have any interest in improved relations with Pakistan. Under these circumstances, it seems most unlikely that Modi will suddenly proffer an olive branch to Khan.
The India-Pakistan relationship, which has long been troubled, remains fraught with the prospect of renewed conflict. However, unless Khan can demonstrate that he has some capacity to act independently of the security establishment, and until India’s electoral fever subsides, the prospect of an India- Pakistan reconciliation seems fanciful.
Sumit Ganguly is a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and the currently holds that university’s Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilisations, focusing on comparative politics in South Asia. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (elected 2017). A version of this article first appeared in Policy Forum and is available at https://www.policyforum.net/old-south-asia/