The arrival of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in Islamabad earlier this month marked an important achievement for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government in Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party has consistently kept the issue of Kashmir and India’s crackdown in the valley alive as a focal point of its foreign policy and witnessed a surge in its popularity as the visit became successful. Several comments by the UN secretary general, pertaining, for example, to Pakistan’s role in climate change and its contributions in global peacekeeping operations, were televised and covered extensively.
The arrival of the secretary general follows the recent visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had earlier stated that Ankara stands in solidarity with Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir and that India must cease its brutal clampdown and reinstate the fundamental rights of the citizens of the valley. What followed was a sharp rebuke from New Delhi and additional castigation directed at the Turkish president over what India said was interference in its internal affairs. Similar anger, however, cannot be directed at the UN secretary general and his visit to Pakistan.
Previously, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government came under fire for adopting a lax approach to the policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party government in India. The 2016 assassination of Burhan Wani in Kashmir should have led to a multipronged approach with diplomatic heavy-handedness beyond mere words of condemnation, according to many. The closeness of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was noted on occasions such as on the sidelines of the Paris climate change summit in 2015 as well as the Modi’s unexpected visit to Lahore. This was contested by the PML-N’s opponents, who viewed any leanings toward the Modi government as unwarranted and a threat to national security. Much was also made of the inability of the former prime minister to present Kashmir’s case forcefully at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Conference at Ufa in Russia back in 2015. The meeting and the joint statement issued were considered anything but a breakthrough.
It is against this backdrop of the PML-N’s perceived diplomatic failings on Kashmir that this visit by the UN secretary general carries significance for the PTI domestically. Their opponents continue to grapple with severe controversies, chief of which was the 2017 dismissal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over the Panama Papers revelations by the Supreme Court. Several leaders have also been arrested by the National Accountability Bureau over corruption charges. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Imran Khan, since his government assumed power, has been vociferous in his denunciation of the revocation of Article 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution by the Modi government and featured Modi’s actions regularly in PTI rallies held across the country. In addition, his UN General Assembly speech last year aimed at targeting the rise of Islamophobia and calling on the international community to pay attention to the atrocities being committed in the Kashmir Valley. The speech was met with widespread approbation; several commentators, including many prominent detractors, lauded it.
Guterres’ visit also coincided with the hosting of the Refugee Summit in Islamabad, which featured several prominent celebrities. It helped in cementing Pakistan’s image as a peace broker with appreciation directed at initiatives such as the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor. The secretary general took note of the treatment of Muslims in India and Pakistan’s policies in dealing with the refugee influx from Afghanistan. This soft power projection gives the PTI political mileage and acts as a tool for political rallying for the future. Many PTI candidates that will be seeking reelection can recall the government’s achievements in successfully projecting the Kashmir dispute in comparison to the PML-N.
As of late, the PTI government has endured severe castigation over its inability to translate its manifestos into concrete solutions for Pakistan’s economic problems. The opposition, emboldened by the PTI’s shortcomings, had launched an attack on Khan with the conservative Jamaat-e-Ulema Islam (F) launching a protest march in November to dethrone the government on the pretext of economic difficulties. With the UN secretary general’s visit being hailed as a success, however, the PTI has gained increasing political relevance in a state which continues to grapple with severe economic issues.
Hamzah Rifaat Hussain is a former visiting fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington D.C. and currently serves as an assistant researcher at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) in Pakistan.