Image Credit: AP

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan would appear to have won the battle of perceptions over his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi by seizing the initiative to de-escalate and defuse tensions following the recent outbreak of hostilities between the two countries.

By releasing the captured Indian pilot, who appeared bruised and shaken in initial footage taken after his plane was shot down following India’s cross-border incursion into Pakistan-administered Kashmir on February 27, Pakistan demonstrated canny diplomacy that swung international sentiment in its favour by its grand gesture, which India promptly downplayed. “Pakistan has not done us a favour by returning Wing Commander Abhinandan. Under the Geneva Convention, a serving soldier captured during conflict has to be returned. We must not forget that after 1971, we released over 90,000 Pakistani Prisoners of War,” said India’s minister of state for external affairs, Gen.( Retd ) VK Singh.

But in the world of realpolitik, decisions are not made in a vacuum, and carry the burden of history and the weight of political legacy. So while Imran tells the world he is open to peace talks with India, his hands are shackled to his country’s back story, and must bow to the supremacy of state military policy over any civilian incumbent in office.

Meanwhile, across the border, when Modi and his government act on cue and publicly welcome the return to the negotiating table, he does so with one eye cocked on an impending general election and the deafening call of the Hindu nationalist agenda of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP ) ringing in his ears.

This dichotomy between precept and practice is what makes the denouement of the power play between the two nuclearised neighbours of the Indian subcontinent unpredictable, and difficult for the international community to monitor.

Imran may not be the free agent he purports to be , any more than Modi fancies himself as the champion of an inclusive India that celebrates diversity. Both Imran and Modi are each responding to the pulls and pressures within their political milieu, that deny freedom of manoeuvre for either leader. Like former president Pervez Musharraf, Imran is perceived to be soft on the Taleban, which makes engaging with him in the area of counter-terrorism a challenge for the West.

But from the subcontinental standpoint, the US may have lost its locus standi as the global leader of the counter-terrorist campaign, after it took out Al Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden in his hideout on Pakistani soil in 2011. That brazen act, justified by Washington from the standpoint of US national interest, changed the dynamic of international relations permanently, and introduced a new norm and precedent that at once changed the rules of engagement.

It could be argued that, going by the precedent set by Washington with the elimination of Bin Laden, New Delhi erred in its decision to launch air strikes across the Line of Control that divides the region of Kashmir. By Washington’s precedent, India had the option to go after terrorist targets wherever they are, but crossing the LoC, instead, amounted to a declaration of war against a sovereign state .

The chain of events unleashed in the aftermath of the suicide bombing carried out in Pulwana in Indian-administered Kashmir on February 14, by the terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM ), in which at least 40 Indian paramilitary personnel lost their lives, caused latent animosities, hitherto muted by interrupted and futile bilateral engagement between the two countries, to explode to the surface. The terrorist act was timed to coincide with electioneering in India, and the resulting public hysteria piled pressure on the Modi government to launch an unprecedented military reprisal against Pakistan.

Pakistan, for its part, went into denial mode and called for “actionable intelligence” implicating the JeM. India sees the network of militant groups active in Indian-administered Kashmir as waging a proxy war.

Pakistan has routinely been accused of being soft on militant groups. This charge has been raised not just by India but the US as well, dating back to the days of Musharraf’s presidency. Musharraf came under harsh scrutiny during the Bush Administration, which itself was under pressure from the Democrat-controlled Congress, irked by what it saw as Musharraf’s soft line towards the Taleban.

Policing the lawless tribal areas where Taleban militants enjoy safe haven is a dilemma that Imran has inherited from Musharraf. Culture and geography conspire in the tribal areas to ensure a porous border with Afghanistan. Pakistan’s 28 million ethnic Pashtuns share a common heritage with 12 million Afghan Pashtuns across the border. When the US urged Pakistan recently to tighten its border with Afghanistan, Imran retorted: “America must not blame Pakistan for its failures in Afghanistan”.

Imran’s counterpart (and counterpoint) in New Delhi similarly finds himself straddling the horns of a historical dilemma. Modi is often compared and contrasted with his predecessor in office, the late Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was seen as the moderate face of Hindu nationalism, who was careful not to push a divisive political agenda that left the minority communities feeling insecure. Yet it was under his benign gaze that BJP activists demolished the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, the defining moment for Hindu nationalism in India.

The two hostile nuclear powers of the Indian subcontinent must free themselves from the grip of the past and the pull of the present, if anything substantive is to emerge from talks in the future.

Venu Menon is a senior Indian journalist based in the UAE