Former foreign minister Salman Khurshid

Imran Khan as the next Pakistan PM may not open a new phase in India-Pakistan ties, but there is no need to be dismissive of the new dispensation, says former foreign minister Salman Khurshid

New Delhi: Pakistan, which went to the polls on 25 July, witnesses a new government headed by Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) taking office on 11 August. Will this change open a new phase in India-Pakistan ties? Not necessarily, but there is no need to be dismissive of the new dispensation, says former Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Pakistan is looking at a new government with former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan at the head of a coalition. Is it wishful thinking or can one hope for a new beginning in India-Pakistan relations?

I see no reason why one should be dismissive. There is no objective reason to believe that the change in government in Pakistan could have any major impact on the relationship between our two countries because the hostility towards India is deep-seated ideological hostility at many levels, particularly the Pakistan military and of course the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence). If someone like Imran Khan is to be seen as something fresh in Pakistani politics—although he has himself been around for a while now, struggling in politics, etc—very clearly he has cast his lot with some extremely unpleasant forces. But still, if he is a product of modern times —and ultimately that would prevail in how he deals with the world and with India—then there can be hope. I don’t see that there is any objective ground for believing that things will change dramatically. But, it would be unfair not to give a new government a chance. I would proceed with an open mind but with extreme caution.

A section in Pakistan thinks that unless there is a change in our Indian mindset, in our so-called established narrative of Pakistan being an epicentre of terrorism, the India-Pakistan relationship cannot move forward.

It has been tried. In fairness, when our journalists meet—when their journalists come to India and ours travel to Lahore, it’s been attempted. When Track-2 (dialogue) takes place, it’s been attempted. When their singers come and perform here, when we play cricket with them, when we see their films and television programmes, that is what is attempted. But then, it also gives some people a stick to beat you with, to say that you are giving Pakistan a chance, Pakistan is a failed state, Pakistan should be isolated. We congratulate ourselves when (US) President (Donald) Trump puts the screws on Pakistan and we express disappointment when a Democrat president or someone else says “Look, we realise you have problems with Pakistan but we can’t allow Pakistan to drift away and completely become a failed state because then we will have no levers of influence on them.” Then we express our disappointment that the Americans are not being fair to us. So how do you change the narrative? Who will change the narrative and how will it change? Can we learn from what happened in Europe? I don’t think we—both sides —think with an open enough mind. I believe that we (India) have more reason to cry out in pain. They (Pakistan) think they have a reason for complaining that there is an unfinished agenda of 1947. I think that’s puerile. They have moved on, they have lost Bangladesh and it’s puerile to talk about the unfinished agenda of 1947. And I think we have a legitimate reason to complain about the lives that we lose. How do you change the narrative when people are losing their dear ones? How do you change the narrative when people seem to be profiting from showing hostility?

Imran Khan seems to be putting emphasis on jobs, on the Pakistani economy, on development. The PTI manifesto talks a lot about this. Do you think if the focus shifts to the Pakistan economy, maybe there is a chance of hostilities towards India taking a back seat perhaps?

How will they do it? They have a deep-seated economic structure that is heavily dependent on foreign aid. In a sense, they are not self-reliant and self-sufficient. They are heavily dependent on foreign aid both from Arab countries and from the US. Are they going to be able to change overnight, in a short time and become a self-reliant and self-sufficient country? It doesn’t happen overnight. Their entire structure is geared in a particular direction. You can’t give jobs overnight, you can’t change what is fundamentally a feudal society into a revolutionary modern society. There are some deep-seated, feudal, tribal extremist tendencies among various groups in Pakistan. When they haven’t fallen in line with people like (General Pervez) Musharraf who tried to be a statesman beyond dictator, will they do it for someone who is so dependent on the army itself?

But doesn’t the fact that Pakistan is so dependent on outside economic aid give the international community the lever to press them to desist from extremism and terrorism? Pakistan is now on the watch list of the Financial Action Task Force. It is supposed to get a loan from the International Monetary Fund which attaches strict conditionalities...

Yes, but the extremists are not going to fall in line. Pakistan can fall in line but the extremists won’t. The extremists are not just the kind of extremists that we worry about, there are others as well. There are extremists in Pakistan who want to take Pakistan in the direction of being an Islamic state, a truly Islamic state from their point of view. These are people who attack children in Pakistan in Peshawar. That was not an attack against India. They are against the system there. And our concern, of course, should be a little bit more than those who attack India because their ultimate source and strength comes from an ideological pattern that is obviously not friendly to democracies and plural societies. So, how will Pakistan change that? That requires a revolution and is Imran a revolutionary?

Pakistan is to host the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meet this year. In 2016, India boycotted the summit after the Uri terrorist attack. Would you advise the Indian government to attend the summit this time?

The Indian leadership needs to sit down and think about this. You are not going to transform Pakistan overnight. Who calls the shots in Pakistan when they hurt India in this manner is never clearly known. We pretend that we know, we don’t really know. So you have a prime minister there but is he fully in control? Or he is the fall guy? All we know is that we are at the receiving end of repeated attacks. But clearly the (Pakistan) Army has its own mind. And it doesn’t mind playing games with India from time to time. So, shall we say once and for all nothing to do with Pakistan? And then adhere to that? Or should we just hope that things be at least at a reasonable level and continue with some conversations that may get us somewhere in the future—which is what governments have done.

But if you pretend to raise the pitch to say that even one little thing done wrong by them and we are going to scream murder then obviously, there is very little chance that you will be able to do anything with them. And to revive SAARC without Pakistan is not likely. And if you don’t do something, SAARC is going to dissipate and disappear.