Quite for some time, the chairman of the most popular party in Pakistan, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and former Prime Minister Imran Khan has been in awe of India. He has been praising New Delhi’s foreign policy and saying that the leadership in India has been preferring welfare of its people to everything else. Lately, after an assassination attempt on his life on 3 November during a rally in Wazirabad, while speaking virtually to his much-in-news “long march”, Imran said, "I must take the example of India. The country became free along with us and now look at its foreign policy. It pursues a free and independent foreign policy”.1
Earlier, on 14 August, on the occasion of the Independence Day, in his address to a rally in Lahore, Imran Khan had said that “If India can take a firm stand and make its foreign policy as per the needs of its people, then who are they [Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif government] who are towing the line [dictated to them by the US, he meant to say].”2 Even prior to this, in his address to nation on 8 April 2022 after his removal from power, Imran had also praised India saying that India was pursuing a foreign policy that was helping its people, like buying cheap oil from Russia, despite the pressure from the US.3
Imran has issued some apparently positive statements about India in the past,4 but had returned to the old familiar rhetoric that India was responsible for everything wrong in Pakistan.5 After his ouster from power, however, he is taking a different line and has been consistent in his praise for the Indian leadership.
Coming from the leader of the most popular party in Pakistan, this is unprecedented and surprising. It is one thing to praise a country that is seen as a role model or a country which has been successful in addressing the main concerns of its people. For example, Imran Khan has heaped praises on China for its economic success and for removing poverty in the country. However, it is altogether a different issue for him to praise a country that is seen in Pakistan as its archrival, as the number one enemy. A leader of Imran’s stature should, therefore, be mindful of the possible negative repercussions of such statements. He has already been accused of weakening the state institutions in Pakistan (read the army and judiciary) by attacking them. Senior journalist Saleem Safi wrote in Urdu daily, Jang that that it was Imran Khan who tried to create “divisions within the Pakistan army and made the job of India easy”.6 It was Imran who criticized former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for trying to normalise ties with India. He and his coterie popularized the slogan ‘Modi ka jo yaar hai, gadaar hai, gadaar hai (Any friend of Modi is a traitor, is a traitor!) in Pakistan.7 In his tweet on 5 August 2021, Imran had tweeted that “On 5 August 2019 Modi govt violated UN SC resolutions & int law by illegally revoking Special Status of IIOJK. Modi govt then moved to commit a war crime under Fourth Geneva Convention by altering demography of IIOJK”.8 Similar statements of Imran Khan in the past against India9 suggested that he had no honest intention to learn from India or acknowledge the Indian’s success in its foreign policy.
Why is then Imran praising India, which is quite different from his usual acerbic criticism of the Government of India? Has Imran Khan weighed the possible political risks of making such statements?
Riding on his popularity
It is unlikely that Imran Khan has suddenly woken up and realized that Pakistan needs to learn from and reconcile with India, disregarding the past. On the face of it, his statements, nonetheless, indicate a change in the thinking of the leadership of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), the most popular party in Pakistan.,
However, the main aim of Imran’s statements is more psychological, than pragmatic or honest. It is a two-pronged policy. Imran aims to provoke the emotions of Pakistanis, first by bashing India for its “anti-Pakistan” policy and its role in “occupying” Kashmir and committing alleged atrocities against Muslims in India, in Kashmir particularly and then by praising the same country, Imran is perhaps trying to touch the right chord and provoke the sentiments of his followers against the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) led government. Imran has been referring to India’s foreign policy for driving home the point that the foreign policy of Shehbaz Sharif government has been a disaster and a disgrace, even vis-à-vis that of a country that is considered an enemy in Pakistan. In contrast, he was advocating an independent foreign policy like India and warming up to Russia for which the US hatched a conspiracy and got him thrown out of power. It seems his strategy is working fine, and he is using his popularity well. It remains to be seen whether it will help sustain his campaign and translate into electoral success in the days to come.
Message for the international community
In the past, Imran Khan was seen to be quite vocal about raising the domestic political issues of India in social media and international platforms. He sought to propagate the message that India, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, was inching towards what he called “a Hindu Rashtra and fascism”. In an interview while on a visit to the US, Imran Khan even called India under the leadership of Narendra Modi a “fascist state”.10
Lately, however, Imran Khan has highlighted India’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict11 and held that India’s position has been “neutral” in the conflict, unlike that of Pakistan which is gravitating towards the west and moving away from Russia.
Imran is perhaps pursuing two goals here. First, he wants to tell the international community that despite being its ally and strategic partner of the U.S., India is pursuing a foreign policy that is independent of any external pressure and there is no sanction against New Delhi. By so doing he is not only taking the current Pakistani government to task but also indicating to the people of Pakistan that he is raising this issue to advance an argument that the two countries should be treated as equal. An argument that has been made by him and his followers time and again12 is this: If India is not boycotted or criticised for its position on various international affairs, how can Pakistan be targeted for having such a position? Imran wants to reinforce his claim that he was removed for his visit to Russia in February while he was only trying to buy cheap oil from Moscow that would have helped the people of Pakistan at a time when Pakistan is passing through an economic crisis. At the same time, he is trying to argue that the US-Pakistan relationship is lopsided, in which Islamabad is treated as a junior partner and cannot take any independent decision,13 and he wants(ed) to set it right.
Imran Khan is known for his U-turns, volt-faces and off-the-cuff remarks. However, one thing he has been consistent about, in his latest avatar, is that he has been a victim of foreign conspiracy. His praise for India’s independent foreign policy is both meant to spite his political opponents in power and to showcase the duality in the approach of the US policy vis-à-vis Pakistan and India. He has commended India’s foreign policy for having prioritized welfare of its people and taken Shehbaz Sharif to task for kowtowing to the U.S. and the West. By praising India, he is also indirectly provoking the US to reconsider its policy towards India which is disregarding its concerns and pursuing an independent policy. However, given his past criticism of India, it is a tactical one and does not necessarily point to a change of heart vis-à-vis India, which he continues to look at as an archrival and a dushman mulk (enemy country).
Of late, he might have back-pedalled on his allegations about the US removing him and said that he wanted to move forward on the issue, but the anti-US sentiment that he has injected into Pakistani society and politics is likely to persist in the days to come.
Dr Nazir Ahmad Mir is a Research Analyst in a MEA Project at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- “Imran Khan praises India’s foreign policy again, says it’s ‘free & independent'”, Hidustan Times, 20 November 2022.
- “Imran Khan praises India's foreign policy during Lahore rally”, India today, 14 August 2022.
- “PM says won’t accept ‘imported govt’ in Pakistan”, The Express Tribune, 08 April 2022.
- “PM Khan sees better chance of peace talks with India if Modi's BJP wins election”, Dawn, 09 April 2019.
- "India Is a Fascist State, Inspired by the Nazis", Spiegel International, 30 October 2020.
- Saleem Safi, ‘Who…?’, 08 June 2022.
- Haroon Khalid, “‘Any friend of Modi’s is a traitor’: Anti-India rhetoric played a role in Pakistan elections,” Scroll, 27 July 2022.
- Imran Khan tweeted on 5 August 2022.
- “PM Imran calls out India's 'descent into fascism' for filing cases against Syed Ali Geelani's family”, Dawn, 05 September 2021.
- “Pakistan Leader Vents Frustration at India: ‘No Point in Talking to Them”, New York Times, 21 August 2019.
- “'Freedom should exist for others as well': S Jaishankar hits out at critics of Russian crude oil purchase”, Firstpost, 04 June 2022.
- Nazir Ahmad Mir, “Issues and mistrust in US-Pakistan relations,” 09 November 2021.
- Video clip of Imran Khan’s speech, 16 June 2022.