The Pakistan Prime Minister’s anti-India campaign over Kashmir has flopped both globally and at home

by Ravi Shankar

In the 1980s, Imran Khan had confessed to an Indian diplomat that each time he bowled against India, it was jihad. Nearly three decades later, Pakistan’s cricketing prime minister is on a solitary pitch, bowling at the wind. The no-balls are piling up. His tirade against India after Jammu & Kashmir’s special status was taken away on August 5 is being largely ignored by the rest of the world except for a couple of Muslim countries and Faustian ally China. Isolated on the world stage, the prime minister, who had earned the ‘Taliban Khan’ tag for his support to the terror group has been chided by the Taliban itself for his faux pax on Kashmir.

India has undeniably scored a diplomatic victory over its traditional antagonist that marks a change from the days suave Oxbridge-educated Pakistani diplomats and lobbyists would run rings around Indians as formidable opinion-makers on the global circuit. Not any more. “Then we functioned with one hand tied behind our backs,” says a former diplomat who was posted in Washington. “Kashmir was a sensitive subject. We were told to tread carefully. One of our foreign ministers even asked us to keep domestic considerations in mind.” Today, Imran is ploughing a lonely furrow, his calls for India’s ostracism falling on deaf ears. Pakistan’s rightly deserved image as the globe’s preeminent terror factory is responsible for its international quarantine. 

Last Monday, the US, which maintains its position that Kashmir is a bilateral matter, put the onus on ending the dispute on Pakistan by saying, “Restarting a productive bilateral dialogue requires building trust, and the chief obstacle remains Pakistan’s continued support for extremist groups that engage in cross-border terrorism.”

Terror Daddy: The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the world’s most important body leading the war on terror financing, has retained Pakistan in the ‘grey list’, stopping just short of classifying it as “Terroristan”, thanks to efforts by China, Turkey and Malaysia blocking the move. Pakistan has been given four months to clean up its act, failing which it will be blacklisted. Kanwal Sibal, former Indian Ambassador to Turkey and Egypt, says, “The fact that Pakistan has not been able to satisfy the FATF means that it will have to keep jihadist groups on its soil under control, which is important to curbing violence in Kashmir.” 

World Flop: The US called the abrogation of Article 370 part of India’s development agenda. Russia named it “a sovereign decision”. The British government limited its response to “expressing concern and watching developments”. European Union representatives virulently attacked Pakistan as a cradle of terror. China was the solitary dissenter, though the matter wasn’t discussed when President Xi Jinping visited India to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 11. Imran’s threats of nuclear war backfired. “The superpowers of the world have a huge responsibility... whether they support us or not, Pakistan will do everything possible,” he had warned. The blackmail didn’t work.

Hood Shamed: Pakistan’s greatest disappointment came from Muslim countries. Most Gulf Cooperation Council member-states essentially supported India. The pro-Pak Organisation of Islamic Countries did not condemn the move in spite of the mandatory rhetoric. The countries of West Asia—as South Block prefers to call the Middle East—flatly refused to blame India. To rub the salt in Pakistan’s wounds, the UAE and Bahrain conferred their highest civilian honours on Prime Minister Modi.

Only Turkey and Malaysia were in Imran’s bag for reasons of their own which have nothing to do with Kashmir. Anil Wadhwa, former Ambassador to Oman, says, “If investment opportunities in Pakistan are great, the outlook would have been different.” Imran’s biggest humiliation came from Saudi Arabia whose Arabs regularly hunt endangered Houbara bustards in Baluchistan. His frantic phone calls to Riyadh got a lukewarm response. 

Domestic Despair: The situation at home is equally discouraging for Imran, who is unable to counter terrorism, corruption, dissent, economic paralysis and the military chokehold on Pak democracy. On August 26, he requested citizens to observe “Kashmir hour” to “show solidarity with Kashmiris”. Except in Islamabad, there were no major protests except by his party Tehreek-e-Insaf. The attack on the Indian High Commission in London by Pakistani goons was a PR disaster. 


The day India revoked Article 370, Imran went on a frantic PR drive. Reviled as an Army puppet and a brainless politician—at Oxford Benazir Bhutto nicknamed him ‘Im the Dim, which sort of stuck—Imran saw it as a make-or-break moment to imprint his stamp on history. Riyadh was his first stop where he met the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman aka MbS and cribbed about Kashmir. The prince flew him on his private jet to New York for his maiden UN oration of 50 minutes; the only record he set was exceeding the 15-minute speech limit.

Wadhwa, currently a Senior Fellow & Cluster Leader at the Vivekananda International Foundation in Delhi, believes, “Abrogation of Article 370 is India’s internal issue and most Islamic countries enjoy good relations with both sides. Pakistan has overplayed its importance because it felt it had a locus standi on Kashmir.” Imran’s ignorance of diplomatic niceties and leveraging Pakistan’s geopolitical relevance boomeranged.

His decision to establish a joint pan-Islamic front against India with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad without MBS’s approval enraged MbS. So did Pakistan’s engagement with Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia’s prominent foe. Furious, he humiliated Imran by ordering his pilot to “disembowel” the Pakistanis including their premier on their return journey to Islamabad; they flew commercial. Arab support to India is driven by economic interests.

The desert nations, which are involved in costly internecine wars, are aware that all oily things must come to an end. They have woken up to their resource poverty in agriculture, technology, IT, defence and various vectors, and are looking to invest in India. Saudi Arabia is putting in $100 billion whereas Pakistan’s flailing financial condition forced it to take a $6 billion loan from Riyadh. Pakistan will owe $3 billion to the UAE, whose largest trade partner is India; bilateral trade amounts to over $44.5 billion and is targeted to touch $100 billion next year. 


An Indian government innovation could allow foreign funds, including Middle East institutional buyers, to pick up stressed bank loan portfolios. As startup dreams tank in China, Arab investors are looking at Indian hopefuls. The Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry has launched the Dubai Startup Hub. Last month, edutech startup Byju’s received $150 million from Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). Middle Eastern private equity investors such as Abraaj Group, Vy Capital and Jabbar Internet Group have taken stakes in other unicorns like BigBasket, Ola, and Zomato.

Over $1 billion worth of bilateral trade occurs through the ‘Bahrain-India Business Corridor’ every year. Pakistan cannot match India’s investment attraction potential. India’s oil and natural gas business with West Asia pours money into Arab coffers. India, the world’s third-largest importer of crude oil, was buying nearly 50 percent of its oil from West Asia in 2005, which rose to around 64 percent in 2017. Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE and Kuwait are major petroleum sellers. In 2012, the Saudis and Kuwaitis refused to give oil to Pakistan on long-term credit. Pakistan’s bilateral trade with Saudi Arabia amounted to $1.871 billion in 2017-18. However, India’s trade with Saudi Arabia was worth $27.48 billion during the same period. India spent $111.9 million alone importing oil in 2018-19, according to the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell. Qatar meets over half of India’s liquefied natural gas needs. Indian Diaspora power in West Asia exceeds Pakistan’s four million considerably—8.5 million by 2018 remitted $209.07 billion from 2012 to 2017. Do the Maths. 


Chinese support for Pakistan is a deal with the devil, also driven by economically geopolitical interests like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Both countries have also occupied parts of Kashmir. China has an acute Islamic terror problem in the Xinjiang province, which is being viciously suppressed. But Imran is conspicuously silent—a diplomatic triumph for Beijing, which rewards Pakistan by staying shtum on Islamabad’s protection to terrorists.

When global terrorist Hafiz Saeed criticised China’s persecution of Uighurs, Islamabad forced him to recant. In 2017, when the Harkat ul-Mujahideen tweeted that “Beijing has been hushing up Pakistan’s link in terror attacks in Xinjiang,” China saw red: the terror outfit disowned its own statement subsequently. This Ramzan, Beijing banned Uighur Muslims from fasting without even a disapproving whisper from Imran. Last September, Pakistani media reported that the Minister for Religious Affairs Noor-ul-Haq Qadri pleaded for mercy for Uighur prisoners with China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Xing. This was subsequently denied by both Qadri and Beijing, which was annoyed with his demand. 


In Washington last month, Imran was reported counting prayer beads during his meeting with the mercurial Donald Trump, but god wasn’t in the mood to oblige. Alice Wells, US Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, told Imran, “I would like to see the same level of concern expressed also about Muslims who are being detained in Western China, literally in concentration-like conditions. And so being concerned about the human rights of Muslims does extend more broadly than Kashmir.”

After Pakistan failed repeatedly to get an open meeting at the UN to discuss Kashmir, China managed to convene a closed-door meeting on August 16; however, Pakistan was not allowed to attend. In the room, Russia refused to support Pakistan. So did the other four permanent members of the Council. The EU called India “the world’s greatest democracy.” Poland’s Ryszard Czarnecki lashed out, “We need to look at the terrorist acts that took place in India, Jammu and Kashmir. These terrorists did not land from the Moon. They were coming from a neighbouring country.

We should support India.” Italy’s Fulvio Martusciello said, “Pakistan is somewhere where terrorists have been able to plan bloody terror attacks on Europe.” Only US presidential wannabe Bernie Sanders and Labour Party head Jeremey Corbyn heeded Imran’s call. Bernie labelled India’s action “unacceptable” and called on the US to “support a UN-backed peaceful resolution that respects the will of the Kashmiri people.” Interestingly, the speech writer was Bernie’s trusted campaign manager Faiz Shakir, a Pakistani American. The only success came from Pakistan’s handling of the Western media, which is traditionally opposed to Indian military presence in the Valley. Manish Tewari, Congress MP and lawyer, has an interesting take, “The only reason Pakistan is not on the blacklist or even the dark grey list is primarily because the Americans need its help with the Taliban. If Pakistan is doing business with international banks, the international community and life goes on, the grey list does not mean a thing.” 


As Islamaphobia spreads across the world due to the identification of Muslims, especially Pakistanis, with terror. Imran’s tactic to convert Kashmir into a Muslim problem was doomed from the start. He had raged, “Aggressive war is against Islam, but when Muslims have fought for the sake of freedom, they have defeated the biggest armies.” This alarmed powerful countries, which are already nervous about the possibility of Pak atomic bombs falling into terrorist hands. Just like its cricket team, once a major force in sport, Pakistan’s diplomatic clout is waning.

Its calculations are erroneously based on its Cold War strategy against India with US support. After 9/11, the Americans started looking at India, which had its own terror problems with Pakistan, as a viable partner. With Pakistan’s economy in free fall as a stark contrast to India’s growing might, the US also saw a new trade partner in the region. Sibal, who was also Deputy Chief of Mission to Washington, says, “Because Pakistan’s economy is in serious trouble and is receiving bailouts from the Gulf countries, it’s standing in the world has gone down.

In fact, the footprints of Pakistani terrorism can be found across the globe. For Imran Khan to try to play the mediator among Islamic nations does not make sense, because Pakistan is not equipped to do so.” Before Modi’s arrival on the scene, Indian foreign policy had five cardinal points: Indian Muslims, Pakistan, Arab nations, Iran and Israel. From the 1960s, the Congress adopted a strong pro-Arab stance against Israel, and supported the Palestine cause to bolster its domestic Muslim vote. PM Indira Gandhi was one of Yasser Arafat’s loudest champions, inviting him to New Delhi on state visits. In 2011, the UPA government did not support the Arab Spring and refused to back a proposal to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. PM Manmohan Singh refused to condemn Syria’s Assad. 


In the 1990s, Pakistan persuaded Arab nations to attack India’s position on J&K, which they had ignored in exchange for its support against Israel. South Block failed to foresee that the Middle East would redraw its mindset. Arab-Israeli relations were getting better starting with the historic Oslo Accords: both had a common enemy in Iran which supported the Hezbollah. In 2018, Israeli leaders officially visited Oman and the UAE. However, a mutually beneficial relationship continued covertly between New Delhi and Tel Aviv; Mossad offered to bomb the Pak nuclear facility in Kahuta but Indira Gandhi was forced to stand down by the short-sighted US, which needed Pakistani bases for its CIA-funded Mujahedeen proxy fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

It was in 1999, when the Indo-Israeli relationship became openly warm under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The US, miffed with the nuclear tests India carried out under its nose, threatened an arms embargo during the Kargil war. Israel exploited the vacuum and sold India arms worth $2.2 billion between 2000 and 2015. In July 2017, Modi visited Israel; the first Indian PM to do so. The optics was significant—Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strolling by the Sea of Galilee was a photo op that symbolised the new paradigm. India has relegated Palestine to the backburner. The BJP, unlike its predecessors, does not believe in pampering the minorities, having evolved an electoral algorithm that makes Muslim support redundant. The missiles that blasted the terror bunkers in Balakot were Israeli made.


Though India’s Iranian ties are relatively new (1990s) in spite of its historical links with Persia, Teheran has a prominent role on the South Asian chess board, endorsing New Delhi’s strategy against Pakistan and even China. India’s painful decision to obey the US ban on Iranian oil imports has fractured the relationship; the agreement with Iran over Chabahar port is delayed and Indian oil tankers passing through the Persian Gulf were targeted. But Pakistan, which is equidistant on the Saudi-Iranian conflict, is desperately trying to mend ties with Iran, which were cordial during the Shah’s regime; in fact, Iran was one of the first countries to open its mission in Pakistan after Partition.

Shah brought Islamabad closer to Washington to Pakistan’s subsequent regret when Ayatollah Khomeini famously called America ‘The Great Satan’. Imran’s election campaign was stridently anti-Iranian. The relationship now is pragmatic than symbiotic: for the first time in shared history, the intelligence heads of Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China met in Islamabad last year to discuss terrorism and Afghanistan—an issue that affects India which is investing heavily in the region.


The unkindest cut of all for Imran’s anti-India campaign came from home. His speeches which mentioned “blood baths” and “ethnic cleansing” were aimed to stoke passions. Positioned by the Army as a modern Muslim who understands the West, Imran’s inefficacy in drumming up world opinion on Kashmir is forcing the generals to rethink. Pakistan is at war with the rest of the world. The omnipotent General Qamar Bajwa is unhappy with Imran over the FATF rating. To the former skipper’s dismay, Brigadier Ijaz Shah was sworn in as the new Interior Minister in April. Shah is a notorious figure, with close terror links, and was responsible for sheltering Osama bin Laden.

Bajwa was to retire in August but Imran was compelled to give him an extension after the revocation of Article 360. Amidst the economic crisis, prominent Pakistani businessmen have approached Bajwa—a slap in Imran’s face. Wadhwa, who also coordinated the evacuation of Indian nationals from Iraq, Yemen and Libya, adds, “As for the FATF, Pakistan has done what it could do. The system has deteriorated to such an extent that they can’t pull back because there are two centres of power. Since the ISI and the Army want to keep the issue alive, the government can do little about it.”

Imran’s impractical threat to save face by threatening to “starve” India has been met with Modi’s counter to parch Pakistan by stopping river water supply, which made Islamabad jittery. The heavy ticket price for pilgrims using the Kartarpur Corridor is a churlish act. Pakistan’s Kashmir bombast sounds hollow in the light of its human rights violations in Baluchistan and against its own minorities. The establishment routinely suppresses news of Army excesses in PoK. The Azadi March called by JKLF for crowds from PoK to march towards the LoC was hastily cancelled after Imran realised the dire implications of crossing the line.

The only move left is to unleash the around 40,000 battle-hardened terrorists into Kashmir Valley. Heavy Indian shelling on infiltration routes, terror camps along the LoC and a formidable military presence are deterrents. Pakistan’s generals know that Modi is a formidable adversary, who will respond to any terrorist or military threat vigorously. India has warned that it would go deep into PoK to hunt down terrorists, which does not portend well for Imran. Furthermore, once the delimitation exercise in J&K is complete, the undue weightage for Kashmiri Muslims in legislature will end and a level-playing field could even ensure a BJP victory in the next election.

A legitimate electoral mandate would neutralise Pakistan’s demands for ending “illegal Indian occupation” and Azadi. Normalcy is being restored in the Valley and mobile communications are back. On the other hand, Imran cannot meet the FATF’s deadline to clean up ‘Terroristan’. Even as the harried Pak premier struggles to wriggle out of the K-noose with hyperbole, Pakistan is fast running out of options. The ultimate winner in ‘Naya Pakistan’ would be Hafeez Saeed.