Here’s what Imran Khan becoming prime minister could mean for India

Here’s what Imran Khan becoming prime minister could mean for India

The results of Pakistan’s national elections are yet to be finalised, but it looks like Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) is set to win the most seats in the National Assembly, paving the way for the former captain of the Pakistani cricket team to become the country’s next prime minister. Given the backing Khan has from the army, some have already declared that his electoral victory was assured.

This election is a significant one. Not just for Pakistan, which is witnessing only the second consecutive transition of power between civilian governments in its 71-year history, but also for India. The new prime minister will set the tone for the country’s relationship with India for the next five years.

The former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, currently in jail on corruption charges, was a strong proponent of better ties with India, something the Pakistani military was reportedly against.

While it might be too early to predict how the India-Pakistan relationship will progress over the next five years, and if at all, here is what one can expect from Imran Khan if he becomes prime minister.

A potential improvement in trade ties

In the buildup to elections, Imran Khan has been vocal about the sorry state of Pakistan’s finances. At PKR10.6 trillion, the country’s debt is around 31% of its GDP, and is increasing even more due to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As part of his “New Pakistan” platform, he has pledged to fix the economy and provide better infrastructure and jobs.

As a possible solution to the problem, Khan has advocated for a stronger trade partnership with India, which could mean that the country gets designated with the Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) once he’s elected. The PTI’s manifesto has called for strategic talks with India on a host of issues including trade.

This does, however, marks a complete about-turn from the party’s stance in November 2016, when it called for an end to trade ties with India after a skirmish at the Kashmir border which resulted in the deaths of 13 people.

A less-conciliatory approach on the Kashmir issue

While Khan recognises that the Kashmir issue is a huge impediment to a mutually beneficial Indo-Pak relationship, he hasn’t offered anything substantial in the way of a solution and has made no mention of the government’s funding of proxy terrorist outfits.

He has toed the line on the Kashmir issue, choosing to echo the oft-quoted “need for peace” and conflict resolution based on proposals from the UN Security Council.

The Pakistani army’s disapproval of Nawaz Sharif’s conciliatory approach to the Kashmir issue can give us a clue to what Khan’s policy will be. He could very likely end up taking a hardliner approach after caving in to pressure from the military establishment.

Conversely, he could end up taking a more cooperative approach in the interest of stronger trade ties. However, the Pakistani army’s interests lie in continued tensions along the Kashmir border, which justifies high defense spending.

The maintenance of the status quo

Even though Imran Khan founded the PTI with the goal of transforming Pakistan, his drubbing in the 2013 elections caused him to adopt a pro-military and pro-Islamist stance - a political maneuver that has paid off this year.

While he lacks a strong political philosophy, the army’s tacit endorsement and public’s disillusionment with PTI’s rival parties has helped him win political favour. But he lacks experience, and the strings of his government will likely end up being pulled by the army.

In short, there doesn’t seem to be any real change on the cards for the India-Pakistan relationship. As the country’s prime minister, Khan’s foreign policy will be in the vein of his predecessors. He will make overtures to neighbours like India and try and make progress on issues like trade and connectivity, but only with the approval of the “deep state”.

In Pakistan, prime ministers may come and go and political parties may rise and fall, but the army remains. As a result, so does the Indo-Pak relationship.