Does Pakistan’s new claim to a moral upper hand hold up to scrutiny? Only if your scrutiny lasts just one over and stays skin-deep

Imran Khan has always looked good. And is obviously used to looking good. The old one made a fetching image as he came in at a fiery 140-plus kmph, in jagged and unplayable angles. The new one wants peace and dialogue—all milk and honey and statesman-like tones. The new Imran wants to go slow. To de-escalate. He talks of the futility of war, dipping into the history of long, messy, bloody military tangles that took on a life of their own—World War I and II, Vietnam, or the one closer home in Afghanistan.

He tells the Indian prime minister that it’s easy to start a war but not easy to control how it would end. He’s even releasing Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman as an olive branch, as close to being within the bounds of honourable international conduct as defined under the Geneva Convention as possible. One could almost mistake him for a peacenik.

All looks good. For all the doves and peaceniks in the world who may be watching, the contrast is perhaps even sharper when his suave diplomatic vibe is juxtaposed against the present-day Indian political landscape—more muscular, less Gandhian than before. No thanks also to the transparent charms of B S Yeddyurappa, whose artless boast about Balakot having ensured 22 Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka for the BJP was held up to much derision by Imran’s party, the PTI. But wait, does Imran Khan (or Pakistan) earn a halo as easy as that? Does this new claim to a moral upper hand hold up to scrutiny? Only if your scrutiny lasts just one over and stays skin-deep.

The ordinary people of India may have only a simple message for you, Mr Khan. If you really covet the role of a world champion peacenik, it’s within your reach: the ball is really only in your court. After you return Wing Commander Varthaman—who was the very picture of the sort of dignity that we’ve not seen much of lately—you could think of handing over a few more pieces of human resources forthwith; and then for heaven’s sake turn your attention to your own backyard and clean it up a bit.

Even if it may not look like that if you judge by prime-time television or Twitter, most Indians are sensitive and reasonable people. Even if its politics looks and sounds more menacing than before, there exists a vast constituency for peace among the Indian citizenry. They don’t ask for too much from you, captain. Just act against two or three of your cricketers—one goes by the name of Maulana Masood Azhar, the other is Hafiz Saeed. And seize their cricketing kits. They bring nothing but shame, infamy and violence upon your nation and citizenry. Do that and witness the change. Be the change you want to see. Yes, you can.

Or maybe, you can’t. Modern cricket is a complicated game—there are non-playing captains behind you. It’s perhaps not your call to take, no longer your ball to bowl. And without the capacity to make that essential potlatch gift to India, your peace mongering runs the risk of sounding like so much sanctimony.

Truth is, Pakistan’s polity has seen a bit of evolution.

As someone said recently, the deep state IS now the state. Instead of a constant face-off between a fragile democracy and military rule, it has gone one better. Democracy has been entirely subsumed and become one more wing of the military apparatus, a domesticated cat with nice fur. Instead of moustachioed generals growling from the throne, they now stay faceless and silent. And why not, Mr Khan makes for a handsome façade and has that Oxbridge swag to boot. A modicum of functional autonomy, within which they occasionally tried to make peace with India, has cost some of his predecessors dearly—jail, exile, political career, sometimes even their life. Imran knows how to bowl from well within the crease.

In India, meanwhile, we still labour through the pains of democracy. Regime change is not via assassination or jail, we still prefer the hard yards of trying to persuade the masses, who turn from gullible to sceptical within the space of a failed monsoon. We would still rather root for an electoral battle than a strategic battle at the border. Rather be in anticipation of voting results than body counts in Balakot. However much political opponents target each other with bitter rhetoric, they don’t quite have to look over their shoulders at shadowy masters in uniform. Or throw nervous glances at the deeper crevices of a deep state.

Dialogue is a fine ideal, Mr Khan, but not as a dilatory tactic. Not as a peacetime cover during whose span proxy warriors plan on setting our house on fire. Despite all its complications and its poses of overt inimicality, it is not India that does not allow you to be at peace. It is your inability to be at peace with yourself that creates your urge to create false equivalences. Within the limits prescribed for you, you may be doing your best.

Being statesman-like is so much easier on the eye than being a foul-mouthed demagogue (as you could well have chosen to be). The moral high ground, however, is not a mere matter of desperately juggling the patronage of China, Saudi Arabia and the US in bankruptcy—and looking and sounding good doing that.