Pakistan diary: Sudheendra Kulkarni’s interactions with Imran Khan

Sudheendra Kulkarni, aide to former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, recalls interactions with Imran Khan, Pakistani diplomats, military officials and sheds light on what Islamabad thinks of Indo-Pak peace

Photo by Muhammad Reza/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photo by Muhammad Reza/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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Sudheendra Kulkarni

Imran Khan’s handshake was warm and firm. Two things struck me as he welcomed me into his home-office at Bani Gala on the outskirts of Islamabad. One, I was amazed by how healthy and fit he looked for a politician. He was already 21 years into his gruelling political life, in which he had to fight every inch of his way. Two, how strong his hand was, the hand that had bowled the most elegant—also the most menacing—fast balls in the history of test cricket.

I noticed, too, that his office was not ostentatious. What it lacked in flashiness, it more than made up for in the absolutely stunning view of the vast and verdant expanse of the Margalla Hills surrounding Islamabad. His own house is located on top of a secluded hill. As Imran took me to the balcony, all I could feel was tranquillity with almost no visual or audible trace of the city. “It was even more tranquil in the past. Now you can see a little bit of construction here and there. I hope it stays this green and silent in the future.”

It was a late afternoon in February 2017. There were no dark clouds yet in Pakistan’s political sky to suggest the dramatic downpour to come 17 months later, which would drown Imran Khan’s main opponent and bring victory to his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the general elections on July 25 this year.

Yet, it was obvious even then that if anyone could challenge Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s subsequently ousted prime minister, it was this gutsy cricketer-turned-politician who had already caught the imagination of a large section of his country’s youth with his slogan ‘Naya Pakistan’. Which is why, I had sought a meeting with him, suitably introduced by his party colleague, former foreign minister and my esteemed friend, Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri.

Imran Khan: “If India’s leadership is ready, we are ready to improve ties with India. If you step forward one step, we’ll take two steps forward. I say this with conviction, this will be the most important thing for the subcontinent, for both countries to have friendship”

Imran Khan said three important things in our 30-minute conversation. He lambasted Nawaz Sharif’s government for its “corruption” and said his party was committed to providing a clean and pro-people government. He briefly recounted how his party’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province had brought about remarkable improvements in education, healthcare and law and order.

He said he had high hopes from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to drive the peace process with Pakistan. “He is a strong leader, but he has not been consistent.”

Expressing his own commitment to improving India-Pakistan relations, he said, “Peace is the only option we have. And dialogue is the only way to resolve all the outstanding issues. We’ve fought many wars. But the path of conflict offers no solution.”

I asked him about terrorism as a hurdle in India-Pakistan talks. He replied, “It’s a complicated problem. Pakistan is also battling terrorism. India should recognise that Kashmir is the core issue. We should resolve the core issue. If we begin talking seriously about solving the Kashmir problem, I am sure our relations will improve rapidly.”

His answer was not comprehensive, but there was sincerity in what he said about India-Pakistan relations.

And there is a certain consistency, too, as became clear when Imran Khan reiterated the same views in his widely acclaimed “victory speech”, a day after the elections to the National Assembly on July 25. Speaking confidently as Pakistan’s would-be prime minister, he said, “It will be very good for all of us if we have good relations with India”. He called for stronger trade and economic ties that “will benefit both countries”.

Imran Khan: “Peace is the only option we have. And dialogue is the only way to resolve all the outstanding issues. We’ve fought many wars. But the path of conflict offers no solution”

Of course, he drew attention to Kashmir, calling it “a core issue”, and to the “suffering” of the Kashmiri people over the past three decades. But he also showed the path ahead. “If India's leadership is ready, we are ready to improve ties with India. If you step forward one step, we’ll take two steps forward. I say this with conviction, this will be the most important thing for the subcontinent, for both countries to have friendship. The leadership of India and Pakistan should sit across the table and resolve the [Kashmir] issue. This will not cost us lives. But if this blame game continues that Pakistan is creating troubles [in India] and we believe that whatever is happening in Balochistan is happening because of India, then we are back to square one."

This, surely, is the only path that can lead us to an amicable and just solution of the Kashmir problem and, thereafter, to a complete normalisation of our bilateral relations.

As if to underscore his own personal commitment to the peace process, he also reminded the people of both Pakistan and India: “I am the Pakistani who has the most familiarity with India, I have been all over that country.” He is right. There is simply no other Pakistani who is as well known, and as widely admired, in India as Imran Khan.

True, not all in India are taken in by his positive-sounding statements. There is no dearth of sceptics and critics. And Pakistan’s new “captain” should seriously ponder over the reasons for this scepticism. Similarly, we in India too should know that there is widespread scepticism among Pakistanis about India’s commitment to the peace process. Therefore, honest introspection is called for in our country, too.

Notwithstanding all this, let us wish Imran Khan well as he begins the most challenging “innings” of his life.

Ashraf Jehangir Qazi “When political leaders become corrupt, they lose their moral authority. And their ability to resist threats to democracy gets eroded”

Imran’s incorruptible image

The foregoing should not make readers think that this diary is about my visit to Pakistan in 2017. No, it is about my latest visit in the last week of June, when I spent 10 days in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.

If I have begun my reflections by recalling my meeting with Imran Khan last year, the reason is obvious. After the recent elections in Pakistan, the entire world wants to know about his vision for his country and, especially, how he wishes to address the seemingly intractable problem of India-Pakistan relations.

When I went to Pakistan in June—my ninth visit so far—my conversations with almost all the people I met gravitated toward just one question: Who would be the next prime minister? The answer was near unanimous: Imran Khan. However, there was an interesting contrast in the arguments I heard from (mostly liberal) intellectuals and the common people.

Many intellectuals, journalists in particular, believed that the elections would not be free and fair. They pointed out that Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party had won a clear majority in the 2013 elections, was ousted from office in the Panamagate case. Worse still, he was also disqualified for life from contesting elections, rendering PML-N leaderless. His party was further handicapped because of his absence from the scene. He and his daughter Maryam (one of Pakistan’s emerging new leaders) were away in London for a prolonged period of time, to be with his terminally ill wife. When he and his daughter returned to Pakistan on July 13, they were arrested at the airport itself.

The journalists I met were deeply concerned over the subtle and not-so-subtle ways of coercing and muzzling the media. They also spoke about the orchestrated defection of “electables”—in India we call them “winnable candidates”—from Nawaz Sharif’s party to Imran Khan’s party. Who was orchestrating all this? “The Establishment.” It is the code word for Pakistan’s military establishment.

I consistently heard a different kind of narrative when I spoke to taxi drivers, low-level hotel staff and people on the street. “Is baar kiski jeet ho sakti hai?” (Who do you think will win this time?) I would ask. And the common answer, with variations in emphasis and expression, was: “Kehna mushkil hai ji. Lekin Imran ke jalse zabardast ho rahi hain. Awam unki taraf bhaag rahi hai.” (It’s difficult to say. But Imran Khan’s election rallies are becoming massive. People are turning in large numbers towards him.)

This being the voice from the ground level, I was convinced Imran Khan would be the face of change in Pakistan.

But why were people turning to Imran Khan, especially in Punjab, the country’s largest province and a stronghold of Nawaz Sharif’s party for many years? Most people I spoke to, including those who are against the military’s encroachment of the democratic space, said, “We Pakistanis are disgusted with the stink of corruption in our two main parties—PML-N and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Imran Khan is a clean politician, even though he has made some compromises with corrupt politicians recently. We think he deserves a chance.”

There is a cautionary lesson in this for Indian politicians—indeed, politicians in all countries. And this was voiced well by Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, one of Pakistan’s finest diplomats (he was high commissioner to India between 1997-2002) when he invited me to lunch at the Islamabad Club. “When political leaders become corrupt, they lose their moral authority. And their ability to resist threats to democracy gets eroded.”

The writer was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He is currently engaged in activities to promote India-Pakistan and India-China relations

This is the first part of a three-part article that first appeared in National Herald on Sunday. Read the e-paper here

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