Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced his decision to release captured Indian Air Force pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, as a bit of a post-script to his speech in the Pakistan parliament on Thursday, 28 February.
Khan made this announcement after his own speech had ended and just before Pakistan's Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif was about to begin his address.
The manner in which the announcement was made as well as how Khan reiterated his stand through a TV address later in the day showed how the Pakistani Prime Minister has understood the importance of optics and messaging in politics.
The news of Abhinandan’s release ended up overshadowing another crucial aspect of Imran Khan’s speech – his sharp understanding of the political fault lines in India and the clever manner in which he used them to score political points. Some of what Khan said went even against the conventional positions taken by Pakistan.
Here are a few examples.
Modi, Not India, to Blame For Kashmir Mess
In the second half of his speech, Khan said that he wants to address the people of India.
"I want to ask the people of India, 'shouldn’t you question whether you will be able to subdue Kashmiris with the oppression and atrocities that we have seen in the last four years?’”.
It is interesting that by stressing on “four years” Khan seems to be placing the blame for the crisis in Kashmir to four years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule, and not 70 years of India’s policy in the Valley.
This is at variance with Pakistan’s official position that India’s alleged atrocities in Kashmir go back to 1947.
This was not a freudian slip. Khan even claimed, surprisingly so for a Pakistani politician, that 20 years ago “Kashmiri politicians” were firmly with India.
“I had gone for a conclave in India 20 years ago. The Kashmri leaders who were present were firmly with India and didn’t want to separate. Now no leader in Kashmir can afford to take this stand. The pressure from the people is so great. The people want nothing but Azadi. This is only because of the way they have been oppressed,” he said.
It is significant that Khan is differentiating not just between the Indian state and people, but also between previous governments and the Modi government, singling out the latter for “atrocities” in Kashmir.
Addressing the Indian public, he further said, "So instead of pointing fingers at Pakistan, shouldn’t people in India ask why a 19-year-old boy decided to become a human bomb?”
Quotes Mehbooba Mufti
Khan also quoted former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, without naming her.
He said, “An Indian politician had said (on Kashmir) that you cannot jail an idea”.
This comment was made by Mehbooba Mufti after the arrest of Kashmiri separatist leaders in 2017.
"I have been saying this again and again. You cannot kill an idea, you cannot jail an idea. An idea can change into a better idea,” she had said on the 18th raising day of her party, the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party.
Blames Indian Media, Elections
Besides the Modi government, Khan placed a great deal of blame on sections of the Indian media which he accused of “creating war hysteria”.
“War hysteria was created in India. I congratulate Pakistani media for responsible reporting,” he said.
Yet again, he differentiated between the Indian public on one hand and the Modi government and the media on the other.
“There are people in India who disagree with the tactics used in Kashmir. Most of the public also disagree with the war-mongering being done by the government. But they are being fed war hysteria by the media.”Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan
He also alleged that the escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan was largely because of the approaching general elections in India.
“Elections are approaching. So they had no choice but to create such an atmosphere,” he said.
There are genuine fears among Indian Sikhs that the escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan will derail the construction of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor. The corridor would give them visa-free access to the Gurdwara where Guru Nanak spent the last days of his life.
Khan made it a point to mention the corridor and insinuate that it might not move forward because of India.
“We got an opportunity and thought that opening up Kartarpur Sahib corridor would lower tensions. But the kind of statements we got from India is that this won’t move forward. We decided to wait for the elections to get over. But we feared that before elections, there will be some incident or the other that will be exploited for the elections. Then Pulwama happened,” he said.
The decision to construct the corridor at Kartarpur Sahib was followed by Khan’s announcement of the creation of a Baba Guru Nanak Ji International University at Guru Nanak’s birthplace Nankana Sahib, indicating the emphasis the Pakistan Prime Minister is attaching to Guru Nanak.
There were several other interesting aspects to Khan’s speech, such as his comment that “Tipu Sultan is the hero of Pakistan”.
Tipu Sultan isn’t a very commonly invoked figure in Pakistan, despite being one of the most prominent Muslim rulers of undivided India. Rather, Pakistan’s worldview of pre-Independence India has largely been focussed on North India.
This could be an attempt to appropriate the Tiger of Mysore, who has of late been a target of the Hindu Right Wing.
What This Tells Us
Imran Khan’s comments indicate that he has figured out that Narendra Modi’s rule has alienated a large number of Indians. And he is trying to use these fault lines to score political points.
This is why Khan made it a point to repeatedly allege that the latest escalation in Indo-Pak tensions was the result of PM Modi’s electoral calculations, and was no fault of Pakistan’s. BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa’s statement only strengthened this narrative and it is no surprise that Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, capitalised on it.
This understanding is most important when it comes to Kashmir. Khan went against the dominant narrative in Pakistan – of ‘70 years of Indian atrocities in Kashmir’ – and instead put the blame on four years of Modi’s rule.
This is also evident in the fact that he quoted a ‘mainstream’ Indian politician and former BJP ally like Mehbooba Mufti, albeit without naming her.
Khan’s deviation from the Pakistani narrative also stems from a certain self-confidence that he enjoys the unqualified support of the country’s powerful military and intelligence establishment.
Imran Khan’s consistent invocation of Guru Nanak and his latest praise of Tipu Sultan, reflects his use of icons that are not normally associated with Pakistani nationalism. This can be seen as his attempt to appear as a foil to the majoritarian nationalism that is associated with the BJP’s rule in India.
There is a larger geo-political aspect to this as well. One of the reasons India has enjoyed international credibility in comparison to Pakistan is the fact that it is a secular state as opposed to a theocracy.
By emphasising on the majoritarian and divisive aspects of the Modi government’s rule and projecting himself as an inclusive figure, Khan is trying to turn this equation around against India.
This makes Khan a particularly tricky customer for India. Perhaps for the first time in Pakistan, there is a Prime Minister who understands that India is witnessing an almost unprecedented political polarisation and is not reluctant to use this to push his country’s interests.
So while it may be true that Khan’s powers are largely circumscribed by the Pakistan military, India would do well to recognise that it is dealing with a very clever politician in Islamabad.