That many of us are unable to give Imran Khan due credit for his influential New York trip and his speech at the UN reflects the kind of bitter and divided polity we have become.
That IK might have been instrumental in sowing seeds of the destructive polarization we suffer is a separate matter. But in New York and at the UN, IK came across as undaunted, guileless and sincere about making Pakistan a peace-loving country that the world could engage with. To deny him that is to become victim to the polarization many blame him for.
The foremost critique of IK’s UN trip is that if it were a job well done why is Kashmir still in shackles. Yes, this is an argument made by serious people! The other critique is that IK need not have spoken about Islamophobia etc, and focused exclusively on Kashmir. And further that in view of India colonizing Kashmir any prime minister would have engaged in feverish activity in New York, spoken forcefully about it, and beseeched the world to take action and prevent the human catastrophe unfolding before us.
When Bhutto spoke in the Security Council reflecting grit and resolve in 1971, he wasn’t defending a war he either started or lost. The security policy that led to the creation of Bangladesh wasn’t of his making. He was there to speak on behalf of a nation that had suffered tremendous loss. He sat there and told the world that we might be down but not out. When he walked out on the Security Council, it didn’t revert East Pakistan to us. He told the world and our nation that we might have lost the war but we haven’t made peace with servitude.
It wasn’t Bhutto’s fault that our security policy didn’t conceive of a situation where India might walk into our Eastern Wing, encouraged by our Bengali brothers who had had enough and wanted out. And it isn’t IK’s fault that our security policy wasn’t prepared for a Modi in Gandhi and Nehru’s India who might undo Article 370. When IK headed to the UN, he wasn’t there to bemoan a Kashmir policy gone wrong that he had authored. He was the civilian face of the polity holding the bag just like Bhutto was back in 1971. And he did so with great panache.
IK’s New York trip was an effort in brinksmanship. Time will tell if it worked or not. IK’s job was to weave together and market to the world Pakistan’s narrative. It’s hard to find fault with the pitch he made and the way he made it. Ultimately, the success of any marketing pitch rests on the quality of the product. IK can’t be blamed for the product he has inherited. His affinity with the security establishment doesn’t make him responsible for past policies. If the product is now found wanting under IK’s watch, that’ll be something else.
How we got to Modi annexing Kashmir and Pakistan being left with a limited set of options is an issue separate from how IK dealt with the cards he was served and made his spiel to the world. Here is how things stand. Pakistan can’t afford a conventional war with India. Non-state actors have fallen out of favour with the world. India has projected us as patrons of terror, which has resonated with the post-9/11 world. We are already on the FATF’s radar and thus employing NSAs once again as an extension of our security policy would be suicidal.
Nuclear weapons are instruments of deterrence and not war. They are meant to prevent war with the threat of mutually assured destruction. Interstate relations are based on interests. India is a bigger country with a huge consumer market, a large middle class and an attractive economy. Our economy is in the pits. So we can call in all favours and the world (including our best friends) will not suspend their dealings with India just because it is inflicting miseries upon Kashmiris. That is how the world has always functioned and how it will continue to.
In this backdrop, IK headed out to the US. In the days leading up to the UN moot he engaged with world leaders at a frenetic pace. No other leader in present-day Pakistan evokes the kind of interest IK does on the international stage, largely due to his celebrity and the great story he is. So leaders were willing to meet with him and folks were eager to listen to him. And he used the pulpit to weave a narrative about a Pakistan that has learnt lessons from past mistakes and is a voice of reason and peace that the world must heed and engage with.
When he stood in the UNGA he had prepared the ground for his pitch. (Would it have been better if he had spoken for 25 minutes, the last 25? Yes. But then IK, like most, is a package deal.) His speech did there important things. One, it put before the world Pakistan’s suspicion of India framing Pakistan for use of NSAs and mounting a false operation to initiate a limited war. He explained how he had reached out to Modi, how Pakistan has clamped down on NSAs, how Pulwama was a false-flag operation and how there could be more.
This, together with the resolve to fight till the end, was brinksmanship.