You’ve got to give it to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. His government might have just passed a harsh law that can throw social media users and journalists into prison for “fake news”, but his belief in the power of rhetoric — especially his own — appears rather intact. And so, one television debate is all he wants with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi — to resolve differences that have too often brought the two neighbours to war. Or, as the great balladeers of 1990s soppy romance, the boy band Boyzone, would say: “Words are all I have to take your heart away.”
Surely, Khan hasn’t watched TV recently. It is hard to imagine the small-screen gladiators on either side of the LoC — not known for control or restraint in crossing lines — as moderators of peace. Does this touching faith in eloquence have something to do with the debating culture at Oxford University, where Khan studied in the early 1970s, and began his charmed life as player and playboy? After all, in universities across the world, there are enough young privileged men (and women) with the breezy confidence that they only have to marshall facts and dazzling arguments to solve the world’s most intractable problems. Demagogues and populists, too, like nothing more than to anoint themselves the heroes of all stories. Who needs the grunt work of diplomacy and negotiation and conflict management? Let’s settle this, man to man, one on one.
On a Moscow visit as the war on Ukraine unfolds, will Khan be tempted to organise another debate-cum-primetime-peace-mission? That crossing words — and not swords or nuclear buttons — is a great idea is undebatable. But to imagine that tricky geopolitical disputes can be untangled by personal chemistry is not statesmanship. It is to sell the world a lemon. Well at least, there will be lemonade at hand as we watch another edition of the Great Bluster.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on February 25, 2022 under the title ‘Wild swing’.