Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s choice: Either lead or follow on

Shekhar Gupta
Monday, 4 March 2019

In last 50 years, Pakistan has lost face, support and economic status. Balakot has given Imran Khan a chance to change that; but will he walk the talk?

There are two challenges when you talk about Pakistan today. First, whether you focus on the history, geography or politics. And second, whatever tack you choose, where do you begin? I could have begun this National Interest, for example, with 2019, today, as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman returned home. I could have also chosen 2009, 1999, 1989 or 1979.

I am taking you back, instead to 1969, don’t worry, you will be back soon to Friday, 1 March 2019.

It was in 1969, that Muslim countries, smarting under Israel’s spectacular victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, decided to form the Organisation of Islamic Conference (now Cooperation). Indira Gandhi wasn’t about to stay out and decided to send minister Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (later President of India) as the head of the Indian delegation.

Her move was thwarted by an outraging Pakistan. It found sympathy in the Ummah. The Islamic world accepted the logic that there could be no OIC without the country with the largest Muslim population in the world at the time. Remember, Pakistan was yet undivided. India was left rejected and humiliated.

Of course, there will be many valid arguments and qualifications here, over her party’s marginalisation and ‘otherisation’ of the mainstream Indian Muslim and demonisation of the Kashmiri. But please do not overlook the significance of a top woman leader of a conservative Hindu nationalist Indian government saying this to the world’s Muslims. Even more, you can’t miss the supreme irony of a sulking Pakistan staying out of this OIC summit in protest against the invitation to India.

Fifty years ago, Pakistan had the power to veto India’s presence at the premier Islamic alliance. Today, all it can do is express hollow peeve and humiliation with a boycott. How did Pakistan, which calls itself the ‘Citadel of Islam’ (Islam ka Qila), with its nukes and missiles, 20 crore Muslims, get itself in such a sorry place? Think about it. I will now drag you back 40 years, to 1979. Pakistan lost the 1971 war and broke up. It was still rebuilding itself and quite well when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This brought in America and its allies, including Saudi Arabia and China, and what is now called the Af-Pak region became the hottest battlefield of the Cold War. Pakistan was their willing, capable and indispensable ally. This started the process of easy and free re-arming of the Pakistani military, strengthening new dictator Zia-ul Haq who, over time, began to see himself as the true commander of this jihad.

I made my first visit to Pakistan as this phase was peaking, in the summer of 1985, to cover the trial of Sikh hijackers of an Indian Airlines aircraft. I was awed by the difference in the levels of ordinary people’s prosperity, quality of life, infrastructure, even the quality of telecom services, which were like oxygen for journalists in the pre-internet era. In short, the average Pakistani lived much better than the Indian in 1985. Data tells you why. Pakistan’s per capita income then was about 60 per cent higher than India’s.

Apologies for doing this to you again, but leapfrog to 2019. Now, the average Indian earns about 25 per cent more than the Pakistani. How did the Pakistanis, despite their new-found geo-strategic value for those winning the Cold War, lose a 60 per cent head start and slip so far behind? That gap is increasing almost by five percentage points every year. The Indian economy is growing by about three percentage points faster than Pakistan’s, whose population is rising at twice the pace of India’s. The net result is that near-five per cent, steady differential in per capita GDP.

How did we get here? Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously threatened a 1,000-year war on India. In the 50 of these since 1969, Pakistan has so lost its pre-eminence that even its Ummah prefers India to it. In the 40 years since it embraced jihad, it has ruined its economy. But wait, this isn’t the whole price Pakistan has paid for this permanent blood feud with India. Keep adding.

By 1989, the defeated Soviets were negotiating their retreat from Afghanistan. A victorious Pakistani establishment instinctively turned its attention east. This is precisely when the ongoing troubles in Jammu and Kashmir began. The self-styled Ghazis in khaki were now going to win the jihad that really mattered to them. The next three years were the bloodiest. Kashmir and Punjab counted corpses by the thousands.

Imran Khan can carry on as in the past, or take fresh guard and begin a new innings. It will be risky, but there is a chance of success if he dares.

 If he doesn’t, two things are guaranteed: Failure for him, and continuous slide for his nation despite its talented people, strong nationalism, gift of geography and a formidable army. That’s the bottom-line. 

Crux of the matter

  • In 50 years, Pakistan lost its pre-eminence in the Islamic world. The Arabs are counselling restraint to it, Iran is hostile.
  • In the past 40 years, its per capita income has suffered almost a 90 per cent net deficit relative to India. 
  • In the past 30 years, it has lost its campaigns in Indian Punjab and Kashmir and permanently embedded jihadis. 
  • In the last two decades, the LoC has become the de facto border in Kashmir, nobody has any patience with terror.

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