Improving India-Pakistan ties remains a challenge after Imran Khan's win, say analysts

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) hopes for peace as he congratulated cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who would also like to improve ties with India, particularly in trade.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) hopes for peace as he congratulated cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who would also like to improve ties with India, particularly in trade.PHOTOS: AFP, AFP/PTI

NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi early this week expressed his hope for peace when he called cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan to congratulate him on his election win in Pakistan.

Mr Modi was echoing Mr Khan, 65, who said in his victory speech that he would like to improve ties with India particularly in trade, promising to match any step taken by India with two from Pakistan.

But some analysts in both countries remain sceptical about any real progress immediately in bilateral ties, which have been at their worst in recent years.

"There may be some inspiration on both sides to bring normalcy. Nothing beyond that," said Ms Ayesha Siddiqua, a Pakistan-based political analyst, who didn't expect much forward movement.

Mr Dilip Sinha, a former Indian diplomat, said: "There is a strong possibility that the two leaders would make an effort to establish some kind of rapport and try and make a beginning. But the question really is can such an opening be sustained and that I am highly sceptical about."

Mr Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) beat off competition from the two other main parties - Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan Peoples Party - to win the National Assembly elections last week.

Mr Khan, who was struggling on the margins of Pakistan's politics for nearly two decades, succeeded finally in gaining support, particularly among the youth, with his promise to cut down on corruption and develop a new Pakistan.

Ties between India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars and regularly exchange fire across their de facto border in spite of a ceasefire, have been tense for years since India began demanding action in Pakistan against terrorism following the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 which left 166 people dead.

India's position has been that terrorism is the core issue of any dialogue while Pakistan maintains that it should be on the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Mr Khan declared in his victory speech that resolving the Kashmir issue remained the core issue for his government.

"His first move is that talks will centre on Kashmir which is a non-starter (as far as India is concerned). We will have to wait and see what kind of coalition government he leads," said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

 
 
 

Mr Khan's party won 109 of the 269 seats in the National Assembly, falling short of a majority and is currently in talks with independents and other smaller parties.

"His first priority will be to set the economy in order and he has said he will root out corruption. His agenda will be almost exclusively internal for a year and here we (in India ) are going for election," said Mr Mansingh.

India is due to hold a general election next year (2019).

When he came to power in 2014, Mr Modi made efforts to push for peace with Islamabad, inviting then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with other South Asian leaders to his swearing-in ceremony. The Indian leader followed it up with a surprise visit to Pakistan in 2015.

In spite of the moves, Mr Modi has been unable to make any headway in improving ties.

Still, some believe India has nothing to lose in talking with Mr Khan.

"I have always said that India should approach Imran Khan with an open mind. It's not like we lose anything by trying to talk," said Mr Sinha.