India worries that Imran Khan's nationalist tendencies can cause more tension on its heavily militarized border with Pakistan.
The success of Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or Justice Party, in Pakistan's controversial general election has riveted and concerned the world but has caused special jitters in neighboring India.
India and Pakistan have fought three full wars and one quasi-war since they were partitioned at the end of British colonial rule in 1947. They are also locked into a constant low-intensity conflict over the disputed region of Kashmir. The victory of Khan, an ardent nationalist who frequently attacked India in speeches during his campaign rallies, has serious security implications for India.
Khan's ascent to power has been closely watched in India with mounting anxiety and cynicism. India is wary that he will be a harbinger of more conflict and tension on the disputed and heavily militarized border. Within hours of his electoral win on July 26, India's military warned that it was "prepared for any contingency" and would not tolerate "any misadventure by Pakistan on the Line of Control (LoC)."
These fears relate to long-standing negative perceptions of Pakistan in India that derive from historical grudges. Indians view Pakistan through two interrelated prisms- military dictatorship and terrorism. From these lenses, Khan's victory is not a democratic triumph but a win for the forces which are most threatening to India.
India holds a deep democratic superiority complex toward Pakistan, which has suffered numerous military coups and has struggled to establish the supremacy of elected civilians over the mighty army. No Pakistani prime minister has ever served out a full term. In contrast, Indian democracy has only faced one major crisis, the state of emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977.
The meddling of the Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) with democratically elected governments and public institutions makes Indians dismiss any possibility of genuine democratization in Pakistan. Khan has sold himself to voters as a transformative broom who will sweep Pakistan free of corruption and dynastic misrule. But in India he is painted as a lackey of the military-dominated "deep state" which is the de facto arbiter of Pakistan's destiny.
India takes pride in being an established democracy where the military remains firmly under civilian control. The Pakistani scholar Hasan Askari Rizvi has argued that Pakistan is a 'Praetorian state' where the military dominates all the core institutions and processes, "including the transfer of power from one set of the elite to another."
Indians extrapolate from such theses that peace with undemocratic Pakistan is impossible as long as its state and economy are captive to shadowy military officers whose raison d'etre is to protect their country from India's alleged hegemonic designs.
Terrorism plays into this dynamic. Khan has been derided by critics as 'Taliban Khan' for teaming up with radical jihadist, sectarian and religious conservative parties and candidates in the run-up to his election victory. He has expressed sympathy for the Afghan Taliban as well as the mujahedeen or holy warriors waging insurgencies in Indian-administered Kashmir.
In order to galvanize the votes of conservative Pakistanis in this career-turning election, Khan has defended the notorious blasphemy laws that victimize non-Muslim minorities and has also benefited from the fielding of numerous Islamist candidates who cut into the vote share of his rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). His first speech after winning the election referred to human rights abuses being committed by the Indian army in Kashmir and how Kashmir, a favorite cause of Islamists, is the "core issue" for him.
Khan's ascent could represent a tipping point in India-Pakistan relations, and not for the better. However ineffective in influencing the international behavior of the Pakistani military, mainstream civilian politicians who served multiple terms as prime ministers like Benazir Bhutto (assassinated during the dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf in 2007) and Nawaz Sharif (currently jailed for ten years in a military-orchestrated corruption case) at least acted as minimal checks on the anti-Indian tendencies of the Army.
With Khan in the saddle, the likelihood of any daylight between the elected government and the military is lost. A unified civil-military lineup under Khan with an overarching anti-India outlook deprives New Delhi of opportunities to bolster moderate elements inside the Pakistani governing edifice and politically blunt the security threat posed by extremists. One of the reasons for the unlucky Sharif's repeated political downfalls at the hands of the unforgiving Pakistani military was his effort to try dialogue and normalization of ties with his Indian counterparts.
As the prime minister of what is likely to be a shaky coalition government, Khan knows the cost of deviating from the military's line on India and Kashmir. India worries that Khan will give voice to and popularize what the ISI and the Pakistani Army top brass cannot say openly- that the state of Pakistan will never settle for peace with India unless the latter relinquishes Kashmir.
In its election manifesto, Khan's PTI party did propose a "conflict resolution approach" with India and Afghanistan, but New Delhi doubts how feasible or sustainable such an enlightened path is when peace with India requires the new prime minister to rein in both the military establishment and the trigger-happy jihadists.
Nawaz Sharif enjoyed a clear majority in the legislature from the 2013 elections and yet was pummeled to weakness in the face of the combined assertion of Pakistan's two eternal scourges -- extremist Islamists and the army. Khan lacks even a majority in the new Pakistani National Assembly. An unstable coalition government is exactly what the Pakistani military wants in order to keep Khan under limits and carry on with business as usual. It is also what New Delhi dreads most.
South Asia is staring at a period of extended and intense acrimony as a new Pakistani leader, beholden to Pakistan's military, takes charge. It is not inconceivable that, as prime minister, Khan will feel suffocated by Pakistan's military top brass as he tries to carve out his own autonomy. At some point, every civilian Pakistani leader has experimented with outreach to India, only to be cut short by the military. Khan could also float his own trial balloon to negotiate with India to fortify his own position as a statesman.
Pessimistic Indians who have seen this movie many times before would respond that anyone can be the prime minister but Pakistan will not democratize or liberalize. Khan's appeal as an outsider who is qualitatively different from his dynastic predecessors in reforming governance has worked with Pakistani voters this time. But the big foreign policy test is whether he can be different vis-a-vis India. New Delhi is not holding its breath.