A day after he was sworn in as the new prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan highlighted two big challenges confronting his country – huge debt and a decrepit healthcare sector. South Asian governments like to blame their predecessors, and Khan stayed true to that tradition by blaming the previous PML(N) government of racking up the country’s debt burden to a whopping Rs 28 trillion. It may be more difficult for him to name other proximate causes for that debt: CPEC, or Pakistan’s commitment to jihad as a tool of state policy which deters non-Chinese investors from entering Pakistan.
But they will need tackling, if Khan’s dream of ‘naya Pakistan’ is to be realised. CPEC’s opacity will be an obstacle in other ways as well: it will stand in the way of an IMF bailout that Pakistan desperately needs, and it controverts the transparency in governance Khan claims he will usher in. Ultimately, the best way for Pakistan to resolve its economic and social woes, and to emerge as the new country that Khan seeks, is to reap a peace dividend with India. Khan has had enough contact with India and Indians to know that its ‘enemy’ image in his country is a false one. His problem will be to convince the Pakistani military to drop its existential hostility towards India.
Khan does seem to have the blessings of the army, and his 21-member cabinet unveiled so far has at least 12 members who had served under General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan’s new foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi – who was also the foreign minister under the PPP government from 2008 to 2011 – has pitched for uninterrupted dialogue with India. But Qureshi will remember he had to quickly catch a flight out of India during the 26/11 attacks mounted from Pakistani soil.
Islamabad can’t expect terrorism and talks to go hand-in-hand, it will have to make a choice between the two. Once it shuns terrorism as an instrument of state policy all issues, including Kashmir, can be the subject of formal talks. A peaceful India-Pakistan relationship can galvanise the whole of South Asia and unlock its true potential. The alternative for Pakistan is greater isolation, more terrorism (of which Pakistan itself is the biggest victim) and becoming a Chinese vassal state. That surely isn’t the ‘naya Pakistan’ Khan wants.