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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 12 New Delhi March 9, 2019

Imran Khan Breaks Silence on Pulwama

On Pakistan PM’s Address to the Nation on Pulwama Incident

Monday 11 March 2019, by M K Bhadrakumar

If Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s televised address in the afternoon of February 19, breaking his silence on the fedayeen attack in Pulwama, is to be succinctly captured in a single pithy sentence, it is that he has thrown the gauntlet down at PM Narendra Modi.

The real political thrust of the speech lies in taunting, challenging and threatening Modi in turn. It is a call to political duel where Imran Khan is confident that he holds the advantage. Imran Khan failed to condemn the Pulwama attack—although Jaish-e-Mohammed had claimed credit for it.

Imran Khan directly addressed Modi twice in his address. He first taunted Modi as a politician who is “stuck in the past” who still seemed to think that, as in the times of “Mian” Musharraf, he could get away by treating Pakistan as a “whipping boy”.

Imran Khan reminded Modi that on the contrary, he is dealing with an adversary whose grit and vile will prove more than a match for him. In fact, he exuded a confident tone throughout and spoke resolutely without at any time getting agitated or indulging in any theatrical outburst.

Secondly, Imran warned Modi not to venture into the dangerous path of ratcheting up tensions with Pakistan deliberately with an eye on the upcoming parliamentary poll in India in April-May. In particular, he put Modi on notice that any violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity will draw forth retaliation.

Imran Khan also warned Modi that a war will not necessarily be fought on the latter’s terms. In a chilling remark, he said Modi can start a war alright, but won’t be able to end that war. Equally, “in which direction this (war) will go, Allah know better”. He may have reminded Modi that Pakistan is a nuclear power.

Ironically, by doing so, Imran Khan also taunted Modi to live up to his recent inflammatory public remarks in the downstream of Pulwama attack to the effect that he would teach Pakistan a lesson. “Bring em on!”—Imran Khan seemed to say with an amused look, while also patronisingly cautioning Modi at the same time that “better sense... intelligence and wisdom” should prevail.

The dangerous thing here is that it is a call to duel from which Modi also cannot afford to be seen pulling back lest it marred his reputation for toughness and dented his credibility. Imran Khan spoke like a poker player who has nasty surprises in store. This is dangerous brinkmanship.

Part of the reason could be the near-certainty that India will no longer be able to substantiate its allegation regarding Pakistan’s involvement in Pulwama. The Pakistani side should be quietly pleased that the bloody encounter in Pulwama on February 18 based on intelligence tip-off also would have removed the last definitive traces of any direct Pakistani involvement.

Imran Khan’s speech contained three key elements. First and foremost, his pointed reference to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is highly significant. He implied that India has virtually lost Kashmir due to the disastrous policies pursued during the last five years—the Modi Government’s approach of “one dimensional (state) oppression, torture and resolving issues through military”.

Imran Khan underscored in essence that Indian policies are at a dead-end in the face of a mass upheaval in the Valley. Curiously, Imran Khan did not even bother to repeat the usual mantra that Pakistan’s support for the Kashmiri people will be by way of extending political, moral and diplomatic efforts.

Nor did he care at any point to appeal to the international community. There was a tone of triumphalism throughout in his remarks—that it is check-and-checkmate for India in J&K.

Without doubt, the victory in sight in Afghanistan gives Pakistan a free hand now to turn to the Kashmir Valley. Significantly, Imran Khan twice brought in the analogy of Afghanistan. He hinted at the defeat staring the US in the face in the 17-year old Afghan war and the grudging admission by Washington lately that only through talks and negotiations with the Taliban can the Afghan problem be resolved.

Of course, Imran Khan didn’t say what brought about the military stalemate for the Americans and NATO in Afghanistan—namely, Pakistan’s sustained backing for the Taliban insurgency. But his message is that a similar fate awaits India in the Kashmir Valley where also a stalemate is steadily developing on the ground.

The stark implications of this reference to Afghan war shouldn’t be lost sight of. Simply put, Imran Khan has just stopped short of threatening that Pakistan will fuel the insur-gency until fatigue sets in for the Indian side, which will then be compelled to come to the negotiating table to sue for peace and an honourable retreat by the Indian Army. In fact, right at the beginning of his speech Imran Khan reminded Modi that it is dealing with a “new Pakistan with a new mindset and a new thought process”.

Interestingly, Imran Khan also concluded his speech by drawing the analogy of the Afghan war—“We hope that like Afghanistan, this issue (Kashmir) will also be resolved through dialogue.”

No doubt, Imran Khan’s speech goes far beyond the Pulwama incident. The verbose MEA reaction picking holes in Imran Khan’s arguments is inadequate. There has to be a political response. Imran Khan does not expect talks with India before the end of this year at the earliest. Meanwhile, he estimates that the Modi Government has lost the plot in J&K and Kashmir has become India’s Achilles’ heel.

We should expect much bloodshed during the coming months. Kashmir surges once again as the centre piece of India’s foreign policy. This is exactly the Pakistani game-plan, too. We could have anticipated such a turn of events politically, militarily and diplomatically.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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