Can the PTI initiate an Indo-Pak peace process?

By Frank Islam

Will cricket legend Imran Khan’s ascension to power in Pakistan ease tensions between his homeland and India? Mr. Khan, who took the oath to become Pakistan’s 22nd Prime Minister (PM)last week is immensely popular in cricket-crazy India. The rivalry between Pakistan and India is so strong, however, that even he may find it hard to repair the broken ties between the two nations, which have fought three wars over the past 70 years.

Fortunately, at this early point in time, the initial indications from both sides have been positive. Khan expressed a desire for better relations with India in his victory speech. After taking the oath of office, he used Twitter to call for a dialogue with India to resolve conflicts, including Kashmir. He stated, “Best way to alleviate poverty and uplift the people of the Subcontinent is to resolve our differences through dialogue and start trading”. Indian PM Narendra Modi expressed similar feelings in congratulating Mr. Khan on his new position, calling for “meaningful and constructive engagement” with Pakistan.

Because of this temporary détente, Imran has the opportunity to take the lead in resetting Pakistan’s relations with India. There are two factors that he can exploit in this regard. First, Imran enjoys substantial goodwill among Indian opinion makers owing to his long and distinctive association with the game of cricket. The former leader of the Indian Opposition Congress party, Sonia Gandhi has called him “a brother”. Former Indian cricketer and current politician Navjot Singh Sidhu traveled from India to attend Khan’s inauguration as PM.

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Second, it is widely believed that Imran Khan has the backing of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, which is a key stakeholder when it comes to improving India-Pakistan ties. His predecessor, Nawaz Sharif did not have the support of the military. There was a trust deficit and as a result, there was no major initiative toward India. In contrast, with the confidence and support of the military, Mr. Khan has the potential to launch a successful peace initiative with India.

PM Modi must be PM Khan’s partner if such an initiative is to come to fruition. Because of his recent statements and past actions, it appears that Modi is sincerely interested in improving the relationship between India and Pakistan.

Consider that Modi invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif to attend his swearing-in ceremony as PM and made a surprise trip to Lahore to attend the wedding of MrSharif’s granddaughter. Given Mr. Sharif’s problematic relationship with the Pakistan military, these interactions never lead to serious discussions. Now, with Mr. Khan at the helm in Islamabad, the equation has changed and the prospects for a successful dialogue have improved considerably.

In spite of this, defining and building a path to peace will not be easy for the two PMs. There are two fundamental issues that have been at the centre of the ongoing conflict between Pakistan and India. These are Kashmir and terrorism. While Pakistan consistently calls for the resolution of the Kashmir issue, India urges Pakistan to do more on curbing “cross-border terrorism”. Resolution of these issues will require substantial public support and the endorsement of the security establishments on both sides of the border. While this may be difficult to achieve, it is not impossible.

In the past, the two countries have come close to resolving the issues dividing them. In early 2007, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf and Indian PM Manmohan Singh were close to a negotiated peace deal. That deal brokered through back-channel diplomacy did not see the light of day, however, as Musharraf got embroiled in domestic political disputes that eventually resulted in his ouster. According to a leaked US embassy cable dated April 21, 2009, PM Singh told a visiting US delegation that India and Pakistan had agreed to a non-territorial solution to Kashmir which involved free trade and movement across the Line of Control.

Similarly, efforts were made in the past to address Indian concerns on cross-border infiltrations through a composite dialogue between the two countries. The dialogue resulted in several confidence-building measures between the two countries including a ceasefire on the Kashmir border and the start of bus service between Sri Nagar and Muzaffarabad. Unfortunately, this peace process came to a screeching halt due to the Samjhota Express Bombings of 2007 and the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

That was then, and this is now. With Imran Khan and Narenda Modi leading Pakistan and India, there is hope for the restoration of a formal peace process. The desire for peace appears mutual. None the less, the negotiations leading to a comprehensive settlement will no doubt be difficult, complex and time-consuming.

Given this, it would be well to remember the adage, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Heeding this advice, it might make sense to begin rebuilding the relationship between Pakistan and India with small steps that could help set the stage for a full-fledged peace agreement.

Some small steps that could be taken in the near term to strengthen the bonds and build a cooperative and collaborative framework between Pakistan and India include improving people to people contact through a cultural exchange. Restoration of bilateral sports events — especially cricket series — could a go a long way in improving relations. The two countries could strengthen the regional body named South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). This forum has the potential to not only bring Pakistan and India closer together but also to address the Afghanistan conundrum. Easing visa regimes to encourage cross-border travel and social interaction will also help. Currently, it is almost impossible for ordinary citizens of one country to get visas to visit the other. Producing Indian Bollywood movies which have a great following in Pakistan with joint Pakistani-Indian staffing and casting will also help. Starting bilateral trade between the two countries on a limited scope basis focusing on items and areas that are important to the working class in both countries will also bring the two neighbours closer.

Evolving a counter-terrorism mechanism to protect the more than 1.5 billion citizens of this region from becoming victims of terrorists is also very important. Encouraging religious tourism so that Muslims can travel to their sacred places in India and the Sikh community can travel to their sacred places in Pakistan is also necessary.

These small steps and others could start the development of a new relationship between Pakistan and India.   They will give peace a chance.  They will provide Khan, Modi and their representatives the time and space they need to do the work required to build the enduring partnership that is essential for the future of this region.

The writer is an Entrepreneur, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal

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