Imran Khan has changed many avatars in the last two decades; from political outsider, to serious candidate, to viable opposition, to now Prime Minister. But the more radical transformation has taken place in the last two weeks.
Pakistan has long professed that Kashmir is its jugular vein. Naysayers may scoff, but the Modi government’s landmark decision to abrogate Article 370 has certainly pricked a nerve in Islamabad, and the anger has spilled into the streets of Lahore, Karachi and Rawalpindi.
But before the August 5 decision, Imran Khan was on cloud nine. Days earlier, Khan returned to Islamabad and crooned that the sentiment was that of winning the “World Cup” after what was perceived as a successful visit to Washington DC. A Modi-style grandiose interaction with the Pakistani populace, a well-coordinated press conference with President Donald Trump, the inadvertent gaffe by the POTUS to mediate on Kashmir, and a convivial Q&A session at a leading think-tank to round up the proverbial cherry on Khan’s trip.
It was as if Khan had effortlessly found the ‘button’ to magically reset US-Pakistan relations which hit nadir after years of mistrust. If the Kaptaan said that he felt like he won the ‘World Cup’, the events of August 5 have now made him feel like he has been dropped from the squad. Kashmir, was slipping, perhaps had slipped away in the minds of the state’s military nexus. As Pakistani military historian Ayesha Siddiqa writes with Kashmir, “the worry is not about Pakistan’s own but to an issue central to its imagination”.
Former Pakistan diplomat Hussain Haqqani eloquently said for Pakistan, Kashmir remains the unfinished business of partition, with both civilian-military leadership over the seven decades, promising that a ‘Kashmir banega Pakistan’ would magically ameliorate the economic morass and social ills plaguing the land.
The problem isn’t that Pakistan has internationalized the Kashmir issue, but the fact that that it has domesticated the issue. Islamabad and Rawalpindi have homogenously ingrained in all households to believe in this mythical land that has been promised to it. And this land will be magically (re)attached with the rest of the homeland, if everyone does their part to keep the Kashmir issue alive.
It began with a speech in National Assembly where a disconsolate Khan slowly made the case that India’s unilateral actions didn’t sit well with Islamabad. But his speech turned gradually insidious, with mentions of RSS and equating them with Nazism, analogizing the situation in Kashmir with Palestine and comparing Modi with Hitler.
The impression of this being a one-off sore commiseration speech certainly wasn’t the case. What followed has been nothing short of a diplomatic brouhaha, with Pakistan’s incendiary phase leading them to downgrade diplomatic ties, cut-off the almost non-existent trade, panicked phone calls to world leaders and cajoling China to rake up the issue at UN Security Council.
Islamabad’s Foreign Office pulling its Kashmir strings is nothing new. But more worryingly, it’s been Imran Khan’s Twitter tirade that’s left many bemused. His Twitter timeline has been a diatribe of venomous hate directed at Prime Minister Modi, the BJP, RSS, and perceived sheer lack of understanding Hinduism and homogenizing it through his warped sense of Hindutva. The deluge of tweets came, each with direct mentions of Hitler, RSS, Hindutva, fascists, and even concern over India’s nuclear weapons. Ironic given it’s been the Pindi/Islamabad nexus that’s held the world ransom to its nuclear game threats.
Seldom has an elected leader of a country used their own Independence Day to speak about the leader of another country for more than thirty minutes, choosing to excoriate his counterpart instead of eulogizing his own nation’s heroes.
Appallingly, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) and the Foreign Office, had shockingly decided to term India’s Independence Day as ‘Black Day’. Reports of violent protests outside Indian diplomatic missions in Seoul and London have egregiously been egged on and goaded by the foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and aides. The temerity of the Pakistani government has been sharing such disturbing visuals across Twitter, almost implicitly condoning such violence.
Khan’s apoplectic rage has been rather unbecoming of the image he posed — an Oxford educated charismatic crusader of the people. His appearance to try and look statesmanlike is now making him look senile with corrosive language, inaccurate history and exaggerated threats. He even shared an article from Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, the irony clearly lost on him.
The military establishment knows that even a limited military conflict such as Kargil in 1999 is not on the cards. Worse, Pakistan’s economy is in a moribund state, and Islamabad’s financial perils hang in the balance of an FATF meeting in October.
Imran knows these military and economic conundrums. His tacit acknowledgement of jihadis on Pakistani soil will be too risky to resort to the old trick of ‘bleed India with a thousand cuts’. The coffers in Islamabad have dried out and in this penurious state, the faulty misplaced obsession with Kashmir is cutting its nose to spite its face.
In February, Imran Khan found unlikely supporters in India, who hailed his diplomatic skills as he addressed television audiences with scripted homilies on de-escalating tensions following the Pulwama and Balakot incidents. Shah Faesal, who now finds himself in the eye of the storm, went ludicrously as far as to suggest that Imran Khan should be given a Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, even the Indian government’s most vociferous detractors wouldn’t stake their neck to laud Imran Khan with praises, let alone prizes. This after the churlishness evinced in his statements and tweets. Khan is western-educated and was married to a woman of Jewish faith and knows better than to frivolously throw around inflammatory terms such as Nazis, Hitler and fascism.
Even in diplomatic diatribes, there is an aura of decorum that one must posture. Firm language cannot meander into uncorroborated filth. Khan’s language has regressed, to the point that very few South Asia watchers are giving it too much serious importance; almost reducing him to an ISPR troll.
The top brass of Indian diplomats continues to treat his statements as water off a duck’s back. The contrast in demeanor is consistent down the hierarchy line as S. Jaishankar, the diplomat-turned minister has assiduously gone about engaging other global counterparts, while the raucous Shah Mehmood Qureshi seems yearning for sound bites. Syed Akbaruddin, India’s ambassador to the UN announced that he prefers to act like a traditional diplomat and not add fuel to the fire, while his Pakistani counterpart Maleeha Lodhi relishes her role as the arsonist.
Khan was a talented cricketer and knows how to entertain audiences and play to the galleries. His tweets do indicate that he’s trying to appease the constituencies and seething over Kashmir means throwing more logs into the fire.
It wasn’t too long ago that Khan made a grandiose outreach on twitter, stating that Prime Minister Modi was the best option for Pakistan (alluding to a non-Congress government in the 2019 elections) to sit with India and solve the Kashmir dispute. Safe to say, his recent spate of tweets means that he has lost severe ground on diplomacy and has possibly shut off future doors for a bilateral rapprochement.
Sadly, the charisma of Khan’s cricketing exploits could have evaporated even among the moderate in India who saw him as a possible change maker. Ironically, his flippant tweets of trying to show Modi as a rancid right-winger, make Khan look more like the cantankerous Trump.
In Khan, the South Block would have hoped to find at least a Benazir Bhutto, a friendlier face ready to make concessions with India. But in actuality, he seems to be more like her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — democratically elected, charming, Oxford educated, charismatic orator — but kowtowed to the Islamic hardliners and began to appease the far right, long before Zia began to Islamize the nation.
In extending Qamar Bajwa’s term, Imran hopes to be in lockstep with the army chief for another three years, and with any luck finish off a full five-year term. Only in Pakistan do the Prime Ministers struggle to finish a single term while army chiefs get multiple.
Khan once said that he doesn’t like to look back, but only look forward. He shouldn’t take history lightly, for in Pakistan, not only has no civilian Prime Minister lasted a full five year-term, but most of his predecessors, if not all, have either been exiled, arrested or assassinated.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).
Originally published at https://www.orfonline.org.