Khan’s archrival, Nawaz Sharif, has been consistent in his conciliatory approach towards India
By Sameer Arshad Khatlani
Cricket has been among the few common grounds through decades of mostly hostile ties between India and Pakistan, which have fought four wars over the 70 years of their existence as nation-states. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s greatest cricketer ever, once epitomized the potential of sport in bridging divides. A debonair sportsman, Khan enjoyed a fan following in India that no Pakistani could now dream of emulating. A part of his appeal stemmed from his background. Khan came from the upper-class westernized elite, which has admired the idea of India that its secular and democratic founding fathers articulated. The admiration was reflected in his early days as the Prime Minister until it perhaps became clear to him that India has fundamentally changed under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s rule.
The BJP leadership has no time or inclination for the niceties of their secularist predecessors. It has reshaped India to the extent that there are now no common grounds between the two countries. Khan, who has become increasingly intemperate, has since the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019 and prolonged siege of the region made fiery speeches against India. He has repeatedly referred to the origins of the BJP’s parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He has highlighted at international fora how RSS drew inspiration from the Nazis in the 1940s and linked it to the situation of India’s 200 million Muslim minority.
Khan’s belligerence has brought him into the crosshairs of BJP-RSS’s well-oiled cyber warriors, and much of India’s media allied to the country’s ruling establishment. His critics, including Khan’s second wife, have for years been given generous space and airtime to essentially dig out dirt on him and project him negatively much like Indian opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Khan is now no exception and has joined the long list of Pakistan politicians, who have been seen as villains in India. The list includes Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Benazir Bhutto.
Pakistani leaders are more unpopular in India when they are in power. Jinnah tops the list of villains in India as he led the movement for the creation of Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is known in India for talking about a 1000-war and for nurturing Pakistan’s atomic programme for parity with India. He vowed to make the bomb even if they had to eat grass. Benazir Bhutto is blamed for her role in the insurrection against India in Kashmir in the late 1980s. She has been back in the news in India after a speech for her on Kashmir featured in a controversial Indian film, which has been accused of stoking hatred.
In a speech at the UN announcing the end of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto resolved to fight for his country’s honour and blamed India for aggression. Bhutto warned they have the resolve, the will to fight for a ‘righteous cause’ irrespective of Pakistan’s size and resources. Benazir Bhutto, who was also articulate and western-educated like most of her predecessors and Khan, resorted to rhetoric against India in her early years of politics before India ceased to be relevant to electoral politics in Pakistan. Unlike them, three-time prime minister and Khan’s archrival Nawaz Sharif has been consistent in his conciliatory approach towards India.
As he faces the toughest challenge of his political career, India will like to see the back of Khan even as New Delhi has no direct influence over Pakistan’s domestic politics. Khan survived an attempt to oust him after a no-confidence vote was blocked in Parliament on Sunday. The move has been challenged in the Supreme Court as unconstitutional and likely to be struck down. Khan separately recommended the dissolution of Parliament and sought a fresh election as he risked losing power as an alliance of opposition parties and defectors from his party closed ranks to oust him.
Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz, was set to replace Khan as the Prime Minister and pave the way for the three-time prime minister’s return to electoral politics by finding a way out to end his disqualification. He is most likely to continue Sharif’s conciliatory approach to India if he is able to replace Khan as the prime minister. Sharif’s friendly approach to New Delhi began in the 1990s when he came into his own after starting his career as military ruler Zia-ul-Haq’s protégé. Zia, who is seen to be the architect of anti-India insurgencies in Kashmir and the Indian side of Punjab, handpicked Sharif and ensured his rise as a national leader while he was still in his 30s. He tried to replicate his success against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the US help in Kashmir and Punjab. His protégé Sharif sought to turn his mentor’s policy towards India on its head and went on to sign the Lahore Declaration with his Indian counterpart, Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999. Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan to sign the pact for peaceful co-existence years after his BJP led a movement for the demolition of a 16th-century mosque, which triggered one of the worst episodes of anti-Muslim violence and left thousands dead.
Sharif has repeatedly denounced the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan, which was fought months after the signing of the declaration. He maintained that the Pakistan Army planned the war without his knowledge and continued his conciliatory policy while he was in exile after his removal from power following a military coup in October 1999. Sharif backed unilateral visa-free travel for Indians ahead of the 2013 polls in Pakistan. He also called for demilitarisation of the world’s highest battlefield—Siachen Glacier—while linking his quest for peace with India to Pakistan’s prosperity.
In its manifesto, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML (N) promised special priority to a peaceful settlement of outstanding issues with New Delhi while proposing to connect India with Afghanistan, Iran, and other energy-rich Central Asian republics via Pakistan. PML (N)’s promises came even as Islamabad saw India’s presence in Afghanistan before the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul in 2012 with suspicion and accused New Delhi of using the Afghan territory to stoke separatism in Pakistan. Sharif said he can even visit India without an invitation after his victory in the 2013 polls, which he saw as an endorsement of his conciliatory approach towards India. Sharif called his quest for peace with India ‘the cardinal principle’ of his foreign policy in his Independence Day speech in August 2014. Months earlier, Sharif flew to New Delhi to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony after the Indian leader was voted to power for the first time. He ended a tradition of visiting Pakistani leaders by refusing to meet Kashmiri separatists as per the wishes of his hosts.
Sharif even developed a good personal rapport with Modi, who has used anti-Pakistan rhetoric to win elections since his days as a provincial leader in the western Indian state of Gujarat. This ensured a short-lived turnaround in the bilateral ties when Modi flew to Lahore to meet Sharif in 2015. Modi embraced Sharif at the Lahore airport’s tarmac before they walked hand in hand. The meeting held out hope for better ties. Sharif and Modi risked the meeting despite much baggage. Modi was banned from entering the US until he became the Prime Minister a year earlier on the grounds of violating religious freedom over his alleged role in the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 when he was the chief minister. Sharif’s risk was also greater as he hosted Modi in the absence of his national security advisor and foreign ministry officials. He drew flak for his contempt for institutional procedures as Pakistan is said to have no record of the meeting.
Sharif’s attacks on Pakistan’s military establishment have gained him much admiration in India. They have earned him laudatory coverage in the Indian press, which largely sticks to the state’s line on defence and foreign affairs. The Indian media has amplified his criticism of Pakistan’s army’s leadership as part of a campaign against Imran Khan’s government. They have echoed the line that the army propped up Khan and had a role in the removal of Sharif, who was disqualified in 2017 after his family was found to have bought properties in upscale London through illegally obtained money through offshore holdings.
Sharif has been portrayed as a champion of democracy even as he repeatedly failed democratic tests during his time in power by slandering his rival, Benazir Bhutto, in the 1990s with organized campaigns to malign her. Jemina, Imran Khan’s first wife, faced a vicious anti-Semitic campaign allegedly at Sharif’s behest in the 1990s. Sharif harassed the media and got journalist Najam Sethi arrested. He influenced the judiciary to get his rivals convicted. His party attacked the Supreme Court. Sharif has also faced criticism for promoting dynastic politics and nepotism.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan