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Can Imran Khan end Pakistan’s war-like hostility towards India?

I haven’t played cricket with Imran Khan, the newly elected prime minister of Pakistan, but I did interview him back in 2005 when only a rare foreign journalist was interested in him despite his fame as having been the world’s best cricketer. Now he has won a handsome political victory.

We did talk about Kashmir, the number one foreign policy issue then and today. He didn’t think the Indian government of that time, when Manmohan Singh was prime minister, was strong enough to make a deal. On the Pakistani side he didn’t think an army man could do it despite the army’s large influence on politics. He went on to say, ”a civilian prime minister could do it if a real leader emerged like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto” (who was prime minister in the 1960s). Maybe he meant himself.

The issue of Kashmir has dominated Pakistani and Indian foreign policy ever since colonial India was partitioned into predominantly Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan in 1947. The British left Kashmir with a majority Muslim population and a Hindu ruler. Both Pakistan and India claimed this beautiful piece of Himalayan real estate. The conflict has led to three wars. President Bill Clinton said he was worried the next clash might lead to nuclear war.

India missed its great opportunity to settle the burning dispute while the military president, Pervez Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan from 2001 until his overthrow in 2008, was in power.

According to diplomats I talked to, both British and American, in New Delhi and Islamabad, a deal was tantalisingly close. One British ambassador told me that the main barrier to a deal was “psychological” and that India had to make very few concessions to make a final deal.

If Musharraf wasn’t prepared to give away the store, the Pakistani compromises came close to it. But India, despite the seemingly friendly diplomacy of Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and the unwarlike prime minister, Manmohan Singh, couldn’t bring itself to go the extra mile.

Observers had different explanations for the Indian intransigence- that the Indian army, the intelligence services and senior bureaucrats in the foreign ministry were resisting an accord; that the leadership had not made an effort to educate the electorate as Pakistan’s had done; that the prime minister was weak and over preoccupied with the economy; that his (highly successful) attempt to lower the grinding poverty in the rural areas was also a preoccupation; that the time consuming nuclear deal with the U.S was critically important; and that India rather liked the status quo, since stubbornness fitted in with its self-image of being the sub continent’s super power. There was also the failure of the George W. Bush Administration that was, in Singh words, “loved” by India for pushing a deal through Congress that lifted the long standing embargo on selling India nuclear materials and reactors to India. America could have used the muscle that the nuclear deal gave it to help push India to sign on to Musharraf’s magnanimous offer.

After his re-election Prime Minister Singh unexpectedly found himself riding high. Not only did Congress win hands down, but the grumbling that Singh was a weak prime minister has disappeared. But Singh still wouldn’t bite the bullet. As he had said to me eighteen months before, “How can you expect me to push a peace deal when militants are coming from Pakistan every few months to set off bombs in India.” Needless to say, the big bombing in Bombay in 2010 reinforced his argument. But when I repeated this in my interview with Musharraf, he responded sharply. “I don’t agree with his way of looking at it. If everyone in the world looked for calm and peace before reaching a solution, we would never achieve peace anywhere. It is the political deal itself that can produce calm. Bomb blasts are a result of the problem. Let’s not put the cart before the horse.”

Musharraf had his own good reasons for compromising. The conflict has led to Pakistan-based guerrillas fighting for a free Kashmir, (which Pakistan’s intelligence service has long secretly supported, although much less these days). But these militants have given aid, men and advice to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In turn the Afghani Taliban have helped the Pakistani Taliban, although they have not go along with the attacks made by factions of Pakistan’s Taliban- such as when they tried to kill Musharraf, did kill Benazir Bhutto as she campaigned to be prime minister and when they have blown up schools and clinics. Settling Kashmir could have beeen and would be still a major contribution towards taming the Pakistani Taliban.

Is Imran Khan the civilian leader who could do the job of making peace with India? Could he carry the army with him? Can he neutralise the Pakistani Taliban? Is India ready this time if he does? We wait and we will see.

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