The virtual prime ministerial incumbent in Pakistan, Tehreek-e-Insaaf chief Imran Khan, is donning the mantle with so much apprehension in India because of his close ties with the Army that an olive branch held out by him is looked upon with surprise. That he has extended a hand of friendship is qualified with a Kashmir rider as was to be expected but clearly, the cricketer-turned-politician is a man to watch. It would be foolhardy for the Narendra Modi government to dismiss him outright. Instead, it would be prudent to treat him with tact and diplomacy and to see how he conducts himself. It is heartening that the Indian High Commission in Islamabad was in touch with him for months and that its team has engaged with him even after his party emerged as a clear winner. Such pro-active attitude is hardly usual with our diplomats. His observation that if India takes one step towards Pakistan, his impending government would take two towards it, is encouraging. In a seemingly intractable and long festering problem like Kashmir, one small step may mean nothing but many small steps can build up to a big one when there is a leader who is on the same page as the Pakistan army, which has been the biggest obstacle to peace between the neighbours.
Imran’s statement that “we want to improve our relations with India if their leadership also wants it” could be a good starting point, though India would need to tread cautiously, given the past record of an obstructionist army. While he echoed the army’s sentiment that Kashmir was the ‘core’ issue, he also expressed his desire to “increase trade” with India, which is the sentiment of the business community in Pakistan. His public statement that he has travelled the length and breadth of India in his cricketing days was true but equally true is the India-bashing that he did when he was on his election tours. The real Imran was lost between the two — the fiery one or the friendly one. There is no denying that Pakistan is increasingly looked upon as a pariah internationally and from the depths to which it has fallen in the world’s eyes as a terror-infused state it can only improve. It would be a huge challenge for Imran and his team to restore to Pakistan its reputation as a normal country and not a ‘rogue’ state.