Pak witnesses Sharif’s fall, Imran’s rise in 2018; hopes to improve ties with India in 2019
By Sajjad Hussain
Islamabad, Dec 23 (PTI) Pakistan witnessed a political coup in 2018 with cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan breaking the dominance of the PML-N and the PPP – the two main political parties that have been repeatedly in power – to become prime minister and initiate steps like opening the Kartarpur corridor to improve ties with India.
The Indo-Pak ties strained after the terror attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists in 2016 and India’s surgical strikes inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The ties further nose-dived in 2017 with no bilateral talks talking place between them.
Amidst deadly skirmishes along the Line of Control and diplomatic bickering for better part of 2018, the consensus on both sides to open the Kartarpur corridor for Indian Sikh pilgrims has created a ray of hope for improvement in Indo-Pak ties in 2019. The corridor is likely to be completed before the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev next year.
Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Faisal said, “Kartarpur is not an isolated event” and the process to engage India was set in motion by Prime Minister Khan when he wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September, offering dialogue to resolve all disputes, including Kashmir.
“Unfortunately, the process whittled after India cancelled a meeting of the two Foreign Ministers scheduled to be held on the sidelines of UN General Assembly in New York,” he said.
Defence analyst Talat Masood said the Kartarpur corridor was a good confidence-building measure. “There should be follow-up steps to build on the goodwill generated by the opening of Kartarpur corridor,” he said.
Though Pakistan released Indian national Hamid Nihal Ansari after six years, it has hardened its stance on Indian death row prisoner Kulbhushan Jadhav.
Khan’s victory in the elections helped to improve communication between the two countries.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief struggled for more than two decades to break the dominance of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – the two main political parties that have been repeatedly in power when the powerful military was not ruling the country.
Modi congratulated Khan on his victory, while the Indian high commissioner in Islamabad met him and presented a cricket bat signed by the Indian team.
Pakistani officials say they support a meaningful dialogue with India to address all issues of concern including Kashmir. But India has made it clear that talks and terror cannot go together.
Despite failure to start talks in 2018, Khan’s victory in the elections and opening of Kartarpur corridor has provided a window of opportunity, Masood said.
Khan in a recent interview to the Washington Post sent a positive signal towards India by conceding that the 2008 Mumbai attack was an act of “terrorism”.
“We also want something done about the bombers of Mumbai. I have asked our government to find out the status of the case. Resolving that case is in our interest because it was an act of terrorism,” he said.
The Mumbai attack case in which seven Lashkar-e-Taiba members are facing charges of planning and executing the deadly strike since 2009 is still being dragged on in a Pakistani anti-terror court though the Islamabad High Court in 2015 directed that the case should be wrapped up in two months.
Khan hoped that talks will start after elections in India in 2019.
On economic front, cash-strapped Pakistan approached the IMF as its government struggled to keep the economy afloat. Pakistan is seeking USD 8 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bail itself out from a severe balance-of-payments crisis that threatens to cripple the country’s economy.
Under pressure to generate external funds, Khan travelled to Saudi Arabia and China and both countries assured him that they would provide Pakistan with a USD 6 billion rescue package each, according to reports.
Khan’s government also pledged to complete the multi-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects as a national priority, in an effort to allay the Chinese concerns about its future. Khan had criticised former prime minister Nawaz Sharif for the lack of transparency and corruption in the CPEC projects.
During the year, US-Pakistan ties further deteriorated and the US suspended USD 300 million in military support fund to Pakistan.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pakistan to “reset” the strained ties. Following his meetings with the civil and military leadership in Pakistan, Pompeo said that despite challenges in the US-Pakistan ties, he was hopeful of finding “common grounds” with the country’s new government under Khan.
This year, Pakistan’s most powerful political family – the Sharifs – suffered several setbacks.
An anti-corruption court in July sentenced Sharif to 10 years in jail. His daughter Maryam and son-in-law Capt (retired) Safdar were also sentenced to seven years and one-year jail term, respectively.
Sharif’s wife Kulsoom died in London after a prolonged illness. His younger brother Shehbaz Sharif, who became PML-N chief, was also taken into custody in a corruption case.
The year will also be remembered for the deaths of hundreds of people in terror attacks. Maulana Sami ul Haq, an 80-year-old cleric known as the ‘Father of Taliban’, was murdered this year.
Christian woman Asia Bibi was acquitted of blasphemy after eight years on death row, prompting violent protests by Islamists. Leading rights activist Asma Jahangir died this year.
Pakistan elected a new President, Arif Alvi, a close aide of Khan.