Sanjaya Baru writes | Attack on Imran Khan: A turning point in November

The murderous attempt on Imran Khan’s life has dramatically raised the stakes and altered the nature of challenge he has come to pose to the ruling dispensation in Pakistan.

Till now Pakistan has been figuring more often on sports pages in the Indian media than on the front page. That is bound to change as the headline news from Pakistan this November has the potential of constituting yet another turning point not just in that nation’s checkered history but for regional politics and security too.

Khan, former prime minister and chairman of the opposition political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has been on a long march to Islamabad, challenging not just the legitimacy of the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, but also hoping to create divisions within Pakistan’s armed forces leadership. While Khan’s march, before Thursday’s attack, was expected to arrive on the outskirts of Islamabad within the next few days, another important November event to watch would be the scheduled retirement of Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa at the end of the month.

Will Khan end up laying siege to Islamabad? Will Bajwa retire and walk into the sunset, or will there be a military re-assertion of some sort in Pakistan’s politics? Can political leaders like Khan and Sharif arrive at some compromise that allows the country a breather? Will the army dump Sharif and go back to backing Khan? Are Pakistan’s political parties and the armed forces the only actors in the game or do outside players — China, United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have any skin in the game?

To the extent that Pakistan is embroiled in an economic crisis, implementing the International Monetary Fund’s fiscal and structural adjustment programme is vital. Will political instability and the developments of the next few weeks impact the economy? What role could the judiciary play at a time when other key institutions of the state are being challenged? Would all this have implications for India and regional security?

These and many other questions are being posed and examined by analysts of Pakistan affairs in the region and around the world. What a pity that at a time like this the Indian media does not have a single correspondent posted in the country to report directly. While print media offers at least occasionally a professional view of developments in Pakistan, the electronic media has turned Pakistan reporting and analysis into a soap opera, a circus and just propaganda.

Not surprisingly, therefore, even as some Indian analysts were claiming that Pakistan would be moved up from the grey to the black list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), it was finally taken off even the grey list. The US followed up this gesture with a resumption of defence supplies and western diplomats started wooing Pakistani politicians. Time was when some in the ruling dispensation in New Delhi would claim that India had succeeded in “isolating” Pakistan internationally. On the contrary, today Pakistan has reasonably good relations with the US, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Britain and Russia.

In the past, the body of expertise in India on Pakistan, outside of the security and intelligence agencies, consisted of two well-informed groups — diplomats and journalists. Many diplomats have distinguished themselves after retirement, writing informed commentary on that country. The authors of some of the best books published in recent times on China and Pakistan have been former diplomats, intelligence officials and senior defence staff.

However, Indian academic scholarship is inadequate and dwindling. There are many good historians with access to archives, especially in Britain, who have written interesting books on the past, but few informed publications on Pakistan’s contemporary economy, politics, ethnic, social, cultural and other divisions. The era when senior journalists would either be posted to Pakistan or could travel frequently and establish social links with politicians, scholars and journalists, has regrettably ended. People to people interaction even at the cultural and social level has reduced dramatically.

Lack of access due to restrictions on travel and, more importantly, limited interaction with the present generation of scholars have become barriers to a better informed view of what is happening within Pakistan. Rumours, innuendos, aspersions, prejudices fill the vacuum created by the absence of informed, professional and regular reporting and analysis.

Just over two decades ago, India’s first National Security Advisory Board (of which I was a member), chaired by the strategic affairs guru, the late K Subrahmanyam, met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and suggested to him that the government should fund high quality research institutions, employing subject specialists, to study China and Pakistan. It was emphasised that such subject specialists — economists, defence analysts, scientists, sociologists and political scientists — should have knowledge of Mandarin, for the study of China, and Urdu, for the study of Pakistan.

The point was made how the United States invests in domestic scholarship, outside government, in the study of China and Russia and how Chinese researchers were filling up spaces in American research institutions to study the US, not to study their own country from the US (like so many Indian and Indian American scholars in American institutions)! Prime Minister Vajpayee instantly nodded his head in agreement, turned to his colleagues seated on either side and said it was an important suggestion.

There has since been some investment by the government in the study of China, though few who work in these institutions know the language or have had opportunities to spend enough time in the country. However, against the backdrop of the growing focus on China, India’s Pakistan scholarship is now woefully inadequate.

In any case, such scholarship and informed news reporting and analysis cannot happen within an intellectual vacuum created by limited social interaction. Whatever little interaction there was till a decade ago has virtually come to a halt because of the diplomatic impasse, travel restrictions, paranoia about interaction between even intelligent and patriotic nationals.

While there are now a couple of bright young journalists posted in China, reporting from the rest of South Asia remains weak and dependent on western news agencies. A nation and a society that lives in such ignorance of its own neighbours can hardly be expected to play a significant role in the destiny of its neighbourhood. Even if official policy remains Neighbourhood First.

The writer is a policy analyst

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