July Issue 2019
In the immediate aftermath of his party’s triumph in last year’s elections, Prime Minister Imran Khan delivered what many remarked was a ‘statesman-like’ address to the nation. He displayed a reconciliatory tone on the domestic front, and underlined a progressive vision for foreign policy, through his now much-quoted “you take one step forward and we’ll take two” message to India. Given Khan’s fame and reputation around the world, it was generally believed that Islamabad would benefit from the global trust vested in him, that perhaps the world might not have accorded to previous Pakistani leaders.
Where PM Khan quickly returned to his container trash-talk about local political opponents, he has maintained a consistent outlook on foreign affairs. While aid and loans from ‘friendly countries’ is something Pakistan has always managed to muster regardless of the leadership, under Khan a certain camaraderie with other state leaders has been visible – especially during the visits of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad.
Even so, where Khan has brought with him a reputation that world leaders have increasingly warmed up to, he has also committed diplomatic faux pas, dubbed as ‘embarrassing’ for Pakistan, by his critics.
Some of his decisions – such as his participation in the Riyadh-held Future Investment Initiative in the immediate aftermath of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal killing, or the sudden release of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman – came under fire from various quarters. But there was an economic or geopolitical rationale behind the decisions.
However, Khan’s more recent diplomatic gaffes are clearly an offshoot of a lack of preparedness, which critics feel has left the premier egg-faced with increasing frequency and, in turn, mortified Islamabad’s diplomatic quarters.
In April, during his trip to Tehran, the premier highlighted how “bordering” countries, Germany and Japan, overcame their differences after World War II in a bid to urge regional cooperation in South Asia. This slip of the tongue prompted memes taking shots at Khan’s geographical knowledge, that went viral on social media.
The Germany-Japan mix-up subsequently prompted him to take notes with him, especially when addressing an international audience, something for which he and his party faithfuls used to criticise former premier, Nawaz Sharif. However, while this particular incident was clearly a case of misspeak on the part of the PM, a couple of incidents followed in June, which raised question marks regarding his awareness of diplomatic protocol.
The first of these came during the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Makkah, where he appeared to ignore diplomatic norms and addressed Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz’s interpreter instead of the monarch himself. In a video recording of the incident, Khan is seen walking away after conveying his message to the interpreter – without waiting for the king’s response.
Similarly, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit held in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, a video showed him seated while all other leaders stood up to greet heads from other states. Khan was again castigated for discarding diplomatic protocol. The criticism prompted Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-affiliated social media accounts to spread the rumour that the premier deliberately remained seated because he did not want to stand up for the Israeli premier.
Even a Pakistani journalist, Arsalan Bhatti, told an Indian news channel that the PM remained seated because Pakistan does not recognise Israel. What none of them realised was that Israel is not a part of the SCO, hence its leadership could not have been present at the summit. The rumour mongers ended up with more egg on their faces.
Where his diplomatic gaffes stirred debate on social media, local media houses largely ignored the incidents at the OIC and the SCO. The Germany-Japan slip, a clear factual mistake, was covered by sections of the local press.
Commenting on the PM’s diplomatic gaffes, former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, said the PM’s blunders were inexcusable. “The representative of the country misrepresented facts, distorted history and geography before the world. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue, the honorable prime minister went on at length to explain how Germany and Japan are neighbours. He’s made Pakistan a laughing stock. As a former foreign minister, I had to hold myself back [on social media] lest people from other countries started retweeting me,” she said.
Khar was also critical of the PM confessing in Tehran that Pakistani soil was being used for cross-border attacks in Iran. “People have been declared traitors and exiled for much less. We’re tired of seeing [the PM] make a joke out of this country. It’s not funny anymore,” she added.
However, former foreign secretary of Pakistan, Shamshad Ahmad, believes that the PM is being unnecessarily criticised. “First of all, let’s not forget that Imran Khan is new to all of this. He isn’t used to diplomatic drills. However, he did not commit any diplomatic bloopers. What we’re seeing is a slander campaign against the Prime Minister,” he says.
Ahmad maintains that the confusion in Bishkek and Makkah was caused by the local organisers. “At the summit level, all details are worked out – how many steps each leader takes, where they sit, the sequence of entrance, everything. Those at Bishkek are inexperienced; it’s the first time they hosted such a major summit, so they probably failed to coordinate with [PM Khan’s] staff. Plus there was the language barrier – in Central Asia, they all speak Russian. Similarly, at the OIC, with 57 member states [in attendance], it was the long queue that prompted Imran Khan to rush,” he says.
Ahmad reiterates that instead of making a mountain out of a molehill, the media needs to appreciate the current leadership. “After a long time… we finally have a leader who is respected across the world. Instead of partaking in smear campaigns, we need to appreciate and support him,” he adds.