On 28 July, the final returns from Pakistan’s 2018 General Election were in. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI), led by former cricketer Imran Khan, arrived home comfortably with 119 seats out of the contested 272 National Assembly constituencies – well ahead of the 64 seats secured by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), formerly led by convicted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and now by his brother, Shehbaz Sharif.

The Pakistan People Party (PPP) led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of assassinated two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, came third with 43 seats.

Pre-poll predictions of much-awaited election had been split in the middle, with many analysts vouching for a tough fight between PTI and PML-N. Most analysts and surveys gave Khan’s PTI a tight edge over other dominant parties, particularly the PML-N. 

The return of Nawaz Sharif and her daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, who now stand convicted of graft charges and face jail terms, was thought of by many as a gamble – even a potential game changer in Punjab. Sharif returned to Pakistan leaving his ailing wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, in London. This, many believed, would help PML-N secure sympathy votes.

But, ultimately, the returns favoured Khan, who is believed to be close to the military establishment. Almost all the other parties have challenged PTI’s win, accusing the party of using unfair means – like booth rigging and ballot manipulation – to win the election.

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Khan, in his victory broadcast, put forth a vision of reconciliation with respect to Pakistan’s relations with India, including on the vexed issue of Kashmir. This ostensible tone of rapprochement has spurred much interest across the border about a potentially new foreign policy under Khan.

Imran Khan’s India Policy

It has been argued, that the Indian establishment is not particularly comfortable with Imran Khan, who unlike his predecessor Sharif may not challenge the Pakistan army’s India policy. The Indian High Commission in Islamabad is supposed to have been in touch with some of his close advisors in the run up to the elections.

There is hardly anything unusual about this as every government keeps channels of communications open with all political forces in a high-priority countries.

At this stage, it is very tough to predict Imran Khan’s precise approach towards India. On the one hand, he has made belligerent statements against India, accusing Nawaz Sharif of being soft on New Delhi. Back in 2016, Khan had stated:

Our premier [Nawaz Sharif], instead of raising voice [for Kashmiris], is busy in making his business flourish there.

On another occasion, he took a dig at Sharif, asserting that not every Pakistani is more concerned about his business than his country. In fact, a day before the polls, Imran Khan said that Nawaz Sharif was more concerned about India’s interests and was preferred by India because he was willing to discredit Pakistan’s army.

How seriously should India take Imran Khan’s rhetoric?

While it is true that in the past few elections, including in 1997 and 2013, anti-India propaganda did not find much traction, it was this time after a long time that not just Imran, but even the PML-N employed diatribes against India. This should not be taken seriously, though.

TCA Raghavan, former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, wrote, very aptly, in his book People Next Door:

These statements are very common in Pakistan politics. We have to separate political rhetoric from what he actually does when he is in power.

No substantial headway in India-Pakistan relations can be expected over the next few months, most due to the mammoth geopolitical and economic challenges that Khan would face. On the Indian side, too, no grand gesture can be expected, given the impending General Election in 2019. Backdoor diplomacy, however, cannot be ruled out.

A meeting between Imran Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is also a possibility in the coming months.

In the long run, however, there could be some movement forward. In his first address to the Pakistani people, Imran Khan spoke in favor of resolving contentious issues through dialogue, while also pitching for closer economic linkages and jointly combatting poverty.

In a media interview recently, he stated:

If you have a good relationship with India, it opens up trade, and trade with a huge market. Both countries would benefit

PTI has made strong inroads into Punjab and the business community of the province has been in favour of closer economic ties with India for sometime.

Imran’s familiarity with India

Imran Khan, during his address to the Pakistani people, also spoke about his familiarity with India, as well as personal ties through his cricketing career.

In 2015, during his visit to India, Imran met with PM Modi and backed peace initiatives between both countries. During his visit, Imran also met with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and in the past, he has had kind words for Nitish Kumar’s governance.

Even some of Khan’s close advisors like former foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, current Vice President of PTI, Shah Mahmood Qureshi (who also served as Foreign Minister during the PPP government led by Asif Ali Zardari) are familiar with India. Kasuri has numerous personal friendships in India; and Qureshi, an agriculturalist who was president of the Farmers Association of Pakistan, has strong links in Indian Punjab.  

A lot of how the terse relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad turns out will depend upon the intent of the Pakistan army, nature of ties between Imran Khan and the army, and China’s role in the region. While Khan’s initial overtures should be welcomed, it is best to wait and watch rather than pronouncing out of the crystal ball.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst currently associated with the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat.

Views expressed here are the author’s own.

Featured image: Jawad Zakariya, Wikimedia Commons.