By Syed Zafar Mehdi

Khan outmaneuvers Modi with his statesmanship

March 3, 2019 - 10:42

TEHRAN - It appears that better sense has prevailed between the two warring South Asian neighbors – India and Pakistan – with military belligerence coming to a halt, at least for now.

Over the past one week, war hysteria and saber-rattling had assumed alarming proportions in the region with both sides conducting ‘surgical strikes’, putting millions of lives at risk.

It all started on Tuesday morning when India said its military had conducted ‘surgical strikes’ in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, claiming to have killed more than 300 militants and dismantling their sanctuaries.

Pakistan debunked the claim, saying Indian aircrafts ventured into the Pakistani territory only to beat hasty retreat, dropping payload in Balakot area of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

Media reports and eye-witness accounts later confirmed that Indian bombings had not damaged any buildings or killed any militants, rather had destroyed trees in the area with forest cover.

Early Wednesday morning, Pakistan reportedly launched air raids in Indian-controlled Kashmir, downed two Indian aircrafts and captured one Indian pilot. The aircrafts had ventured into the Pakistani territory and had caught fire, but one of them managed to head back to the Indian side.

Soon videos of Wing Commander Abhinandan being captured and dragged by an angry mob in Pakistan’s border region were circulated over social media. Later his interview in Pakistani army custody was shared widely, in which he praised the treatment given to him by the Pakistani army.

The videos created sensation in Indian media circles with people calling for his release. Many hashtags appeared on Twitter and Facebook and suddenly the reality of war and its unsavory implications dawned on those who were vigorously cheering for a no-holds-barred war.

As per Geneva Convention 1949, Pakistani government was supposed to return him to India once the hostilities were over. But the country’s premier, who had earlier extended an olive branch to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, made a surprise announcement during his address inside Pakistani parliament on Thursday.

He announced that the captured pilot will be released on Friday as a gesture of peace. The news spread quickly and was widely welcomed on both sides of the de facto border.

The tables turned quickly and Imran Khan stole the show. Modi, who appeared to be in no mood to retreat, was rendered helpless after Khan announced the release of Indian pilot and advocated dialogue with New Delhi.

Khan displayed the kind of statesmanship you associate only with strong, visionary leaders. Not only did he clinch the battle of ‘surgical strikes’, he also won the battle of hearts and minds. As one analyst said, he made his Indian counterpart look very small with his statesmanship and political maturity.

The escalation of tensions worked well for Modi, as one analyst remarked, because elections are approaching in India. Modi’s supporters had been cheering for war since the Pulwama attack last month in Indian-controlled Kashmir, which was carried out by Pakistan-based Jaish e Mohammad (JeM).

Indian actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan on Thursday stirred another controversy by saying that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party Modi represents, had told him two years ago that there will be war before the 2019 general elections.

“I was told two years ago war will be coming. You can understand from this what kind of situation our country is in,” said Pawan, a former ally of the BJP.

Despite calls to avoid war-like situation, Modi gave green signal to his military for a surgical strike early on Tuesday, which was retaliated by Pakistan within 24 hours.

The situation looked dangerous as fighter jets hovered over Kashmir’s skies, creating panic among people in the disputed Himalayan valley. While Modi was batting for war, Khan on the other side seemed to be in favor of dialogue.

Writing in The Print, veteran Indian diplomat K C Singh hinted that Khan had trumped Modi in this round.

“Even if the BJP rightly claims that new redlines vis-à-vis Pakistani sponsorship of terror have been laid, the new government in India post-May will have to deal with a shrewd Imran Khan, who has shown the same versatility in office that he showed on the cricket field,” he wrote.

Noted Indian novelist and commentator Arundhati Roy writing in Huffington Post said Khan ‘acted with dignity throughout the crises.

“Whatever anybody’s opinion of him, and whatever Pakistan’s role has been in the Kashmir conflict, Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan has acted with dignity and rectitude throughout this crisis,” she wrote in a lengthy essay.

Roy, who is known for her scathing criticism of Modi-led government, holding it responsible for rise in hate crimes against Muslims in India, said his government had “wounded India’s soul so very deeply”.

Former chief of India’s spy agency AS Dulat in an interview to The Caravan magazine said when Modi became prime minister, there was a lot of hope in the (Kashmir) valley.

“But we have messed up Kashmir in the last two and a half years, since July 2016,” he remarked, adding that the present situation is likely to benefit Modi on the political turf.

Like many other top journalists, prominent Indian journalist and author Sagarika Ghose gave credit for de-escalation of war-like situation to Khan.

“With apologies & respect to Modiji, but today he has been outdone and outshone in diplomacy, war strategy and public outreach by a swashbuckling cricket captain @ImranKhanPTI,” she tweeted.

Indian filmmaker and activist Anand Patwardan, while demanding resignation of PM Modi and his defence minister for security lapses in Pulwama, Uri and Pathankot, said he felt “sad and helpless at the stupidity that has enveloped my nation”.

Pakistani journalist and commentator Mehr Tarar, writing in Gulf News, said one major difference between Khan and Modi was that Khan’s leadership is about “learning from the past to work for a better, united and peaceful Pakistan”, while Modi’s focus is on “ensuring BJP’s divisive Hindutva hegemony all across India for the next 10 years”.

War frenzy appears to have subdued for now and Khan has reaffirmed his commitment to start dialogue with India. But, according to analysts, there is no likelihood of BJP engaging in any kind of dialogue with Khan-led government in Islamabad before elections.

At the same time, responding to Khan’s offer of talks, many people in India have urged him to take strong action against terror groups and their sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

“If PM Khan is indeed honest in what he says, then he should start with dismantling terror infrastructure in Pakistan and now allow Pakistan’s soil to be used for attacks against other countries,” said Rahul Sharma, a research scholar based in New Delhi, pointing to recent attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir, Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province and attacks inside Afghanistan.