India-Pakistan `Stupidity' Must Stop to End Poverty, Khan Says

  • Peace and trade will reduce poverty, former cricket star says
  • Gandhi, Mandala, Erdogan all examples of effective leaders

Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan addresses his supporters during a campaign meeting on Oct. 4.

Photographer: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

India and Pakistan need leaders who can resist pressure from military generals and political factions to reach a peace deal that would help eliminate poverty in South Asia, according to top Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan.

The nuclear-armed neighbors agreed this week to restart peace efforts that have stalled under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. India’s foreign minister will travel to Islamabad to attend a regional conference, the highest ranking Modi official to visit Pakistan since he took power.

Khan, a former cricket star who heads Pakistan’s third-biggest party, criticized Modi and Sharif for failing to make the case for peace to powerful interest groups on both sides of the border. To reach a breakthrough, he said, the nations need leaders with political courage on par with Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

“Only peace and trade is going to reduce poverty," Khan said in an interview at his hilltop residence overlooking Islamabad on Saturday. “This is the only sensible way, so therefore I would sell that vision to my people and the establishment and to the prime minister in India and urge him that look, this is the way forward."

‘Riling up Anger’

The renewed diplomatic push comes after last month’s massacre in Paris intensified global efforts to root out terrorism as the Islamic State inspires attacks around the world. Tensions between Hindu-dominant India and Muslim-majority Pakistan risk fueling extremists in South Asia and beyond.

Modi briefly met Sharif in Paris last month, paving the way for national security advisers of the two nations to hold an unannounced meeting in Bangkok over the weekend. Sushma Swaraj, India’s foreign minister, will meet Sharif and other senior Pakistani officials on the sidelines of a gathering that began on Tuesday called the “Heart of Asia” to discuss Afghanistan’s future.

Khan said that Modi was afraid of his “own right wingers" and Sharif was worried about Pakistan’s army, which holds sway over matters of internal security and foreign affairs. He called for the end of “this stupidity of harking back and riling up anger and hatred toward each other."

“Look at the amount of Europeans killed in the last century and yet look at them: open borders, trade, standard of living going up," Khan said. “That’s what we should be doing here.”

Anemic Trade

While India and Pakistan share a 3,200-kilometer (2,000-mile) border and mutually understandable languages, trade was less than 0.5 percent of India’s combined commerce with other nations, government data show. South Asia, home to 20 percent of the world’s population, is the least integrated region as geographic obstacles and political differences hinder trade.

Attempts to restart dialogue have stalled previously because India wants to restrict any discussion to terrorism, while Pakistan demands an open agenda that includes Kashmir. The neighbors have fought two of their three wars over the mountainous area that’s split between them and claimed by both.

Nalin Satyakam Kohli, a spokesman for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, dismissed Khan’s comments that Modi was beholden to hardliners.

“The government takes decisions keeping the national interest in mind," he said.

Erdogan Example

Musadaq Malik, a spokesman for Sharif, said the government wants to see greater regional integration to spur economic growth and poverty alleviation.

“To the extent possible, we’d like to see peace, we’d like to see regional development, regional trade, but not at the expense of the principled stance that Pakistan has taken," Malik said in an interview. Any talks must be comprehensive and include Kashmir, he said.

Ties have deteriorated since Modi invited Sharif to his inauguration last year. Modi has persistently accused Pakistan of backing cross-border terrorist attacks, something the government in Islamabad denies.

Pakistan’s military would have to sign off to any peace agreement, a significant obstacle. Former president and army chief General Pervez Musharraf “signed his death warrant politically" when he reached out to India, said Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense analyst in Islamabad and author of “Military Inc.”

“It will have to be a general who decides," Siddiqa said, referring to the peace process. Asked if a deal was possible, she said: “Not at the moment.”

Khan said that if he were prime minister he would show the leadership necessary to convince the military of the benefits of peace with India. He cited Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an example of a civilian leader who managed to reduce the influence of the military in policy decisions.

“That’s what a leader’s job is,” Khan said. “Turkey’s military was even stronger than Pakistan’s military in some ways. Look at Erdogan, with economic prosperity he eventually mobilized public opinion. It can happen.”

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