Our Indo-Pakistani folklore has umpteen stories of sages wandering into forests and mountain hideouts in search of a panacea to cure all ills. Many collected fortunes peddling such panacea, genuine
or bogus.Pakistan’s Prime Minister-elect Imran Khan—set to become the 22nd PM in the chequered history of Pakistani politics—is no sage. He never claimed to be one. He was a cricketer who initially set out, after winning the 1992 Cricket World Cup for Pakistan, to eradicate the deadly disease of cancer from the country. Later on, after building a hospital in the memory of his mother, who had died of cancer, he embarked on a career in politics.
The mantra Imran hawked as the founder-leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) or Justice Party, was to bowl out the cancer of endemic corruption from Pakistan’s Byzantine political culture. Now having won the Pakistani people’s mandate for what he insisted was no less than a ‘crusade’ Imran has the chance to practice what he has preached, with all the conviction at his command, all these past 22 years as a struggling leader.
However, foreign policy is not Imran’s forte. His entire struggle, up to this point, has been informed by an unwavering focus on societal anarchy that corruption’s sickening longevity has fostered and foisted on the country.Many have likened Imran’s burden to rid Pakistan of its mountain of corruption to the legend of Hercules washing the Augean Stables, which had not been cleaned for 30 years. But what Imran has inherited is a petrifying accretion of more than 60 years—twice the back-breaking job Hercules faced.Will Imran have the muscle to be Pakistan’s long-awaited Hercules is a question on the lips of his supporters and followers; his scornful and dismissive detractors blithely smirk that he has bitten more than he can chew.
With an overtaxing domestic agenda on his hands, Imran would prefer to have no foreign policy call to answer. He has tried to finesse the issue by pledging himself to pursue good relations with all his neighbours. But that’s easier said than done.Relations with at least two of Pakistan’s immediate neighbours—India and Afghanistan—are going to test Imran’s mettle to the hilt. Relations with both have been thorny for years—a roller-coaster ride, to say the least.
Appended to the relations with Afghanistan is a third ‘neighbour’, the United States, which has become every country’s neighbour—whether one likes it or not—by virtue of its global reach and power.
Pakistan’s foreign policy pundits have long grumbled that Washington has a hyphenated relationship with Pakistan because of its infatuation with Afghanistan, where it has been marooned for 17 long years. The Pakistanis remonstrate that Washington has come to see its relationship with their country only through the prism of Afghanistan, which distorts its vision and clouds its perspective.
Imran has committed to friendly relations with Washington on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, which would make it harder for him to crack the nut; the US has hardly ever treated Pakistan as an equal. Imran’s task with US President Donald Trump could be even more taxing.With India, Imran may, hopefully, have a relatively easier and smoother passage. All those wishing for this crushing logjam and painful stalemate in India-Pakistan relations to break are hoping for it.
Of all his predecessors in office, Imran has the most promising credentials to go after the chimera of good neighbourly relations with India—arguably the most sensitive relationship in Pakistan’s foreign policy concerns. As he feels necessary to remind his Indian interlocutors, Imran is the most familiar Pakistani face to the Indians just as Shah Rukh Khan is to the Pakistanis.Imran may be a stranger to the arcane game of diplomacy but he’s at home with cricket which has taught him that for a match, any match, to materialise you have to have a level-playing field, an even wicket without potholes of suspicion and mistrust.
The cricketer-turned-politician hasn’t started off his innings as Pakistan’s elected leader by bowling India a bouncer. His first delivery was a full-length ball, offering the Indians to move two steps toward them if they only took one step forward. He said this to Prime Minister Narendra Modi when the latter phoned to congratulate him on his victory. Imran repeated the message to the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria, when he came calling on him in Islamabad.
Bisaria presented Imran with a cricket bat autographed by members of India’s national team. That was a welcome and befitting gesture from fellow cricketers to the only cricketer, so far, to skipper a country as challenging as Pakistan.Imran has promptly returned the compliment by inviting three icons of Indian cricket and his contemporaries—Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Navjot Sidhu—to his oath-taking ceremony on August 18. Gavaskar has excused himself because of prior commitments, while Kapil has reportedly declined the invitation citing personal reasons. Sidhu has accepted the invitation and a 14-day Pakistani visa has been issued to him.
India and Pakistan are no novices to cricket diplomacy. General Zia-ul-Haq tried it with the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, with mixed results. But Imran has cricket in his bones. He may succeed where Zia failed, and find the panacea for peace.