If India wants to have a stable and constructive engagement with the Imran Khan government, it must temper its enthusiasm for a quick breaking of ice and totally avoid any attempt to secure a “big” breakthrough.
That’s because dealing with Pakistan is playing cricket simultaneously against two distinct teams on the other side, each of which has a different interest and expection from the game. The Imran Khan government might well have been helped to power by the Pakistan Army, but the military-jihadi complex is a distinct entity and has interests of its own. Based on historical experience, whenever there is an expectation of an upswing in bilateral relations, we should expect the complex to throw a spanner in the works. This usually takes the shape of a military adventure, cross-border terrorism or some other ugly rabbit out of the khaki beret. This creates an impasse and an inevitable downswing in relations.
The way to avoid this is for New Delhi not to demonstrate any eagerness for new beginnings. Don’t try for quick wins. Don’t create expectations. Don’t even fall for photo opportunities. Prime Minister Khan has made sensible statements on dialogue and trade. Let these be worked out at the staff level in the ministries concerned…not by high profile political leaders and government functionaries.
(As an aside, I do think the Pakistan Army will realise they got more than they bargained for by promoting Imran Khan. They don’t learn from their previous experience. From Junejo to Jamali, the army has found that once in office prime ministers develop backbones and don’t always yield to the generals’ diktats. If Junejo could stand up to Zia, imagine what a personality like Imran can do.)
What New Delhi does need to think about seriously is having an official outreach to the military establishment. Diplomatic protocal and normative policies are one thing, but if the Army calls the real shots and will do so for the foreseeable future, realism demands that we find a way to engage the generals directly. We should stop pretending that dealing with foreign ministers and foreign secretaries of Pakistan is an effective way to deal with that country on political and security issues.
As for how to deal with Imran Khan and his government, New Delhi should adopt the temperament of playing a test match. If you play with a Twenty20 or one-day international mindset, you’ll come to grief.