The uncertainty principle and the India-Pakistan relationship

May 10, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters, the IDSA or the Indian government)

“The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa,” said Werner Heisenberg in his 1927 paper on subatomic particle behaviour in quantum physics. While the context could be continents apart, this uncertainty principle perhaps best describes the trajectory of India-Pakistan ties.

As India’s western neighbour faces the ballot box after a tumultuous five years of civilian leadership, there is both apprehension and hope in New Delhi. There is acknowledgement of the democratic process that has run its five-year course for the first time under a civilian leadership that has been constantly under attack, but there is also fear. A fear triggered by the incessant bloodletting and political violence that has marred campaigning in Pakistan. Being called the bloodiest in the country’s history, it is also being seen as targeting the moderate voices in Pakistan – the ones India views as approachable.

Initially, there was optimism in India after all leading political parties in Pakistan articulated the normalisation of relations with India in their manifestoes and it wasn’t just mere posturing. Yet when the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) – appeared to have been singled out by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (or Pakistan Taliban) as targets, scepticism grew. These are parties which have traditionally espoused better relations with India.

The intentions of the current front-runners in the election race – Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and wild card Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – have been subject to speculation. The invisible hand of encouragement from the Taliban to certain sections within these parties is not being dismissed.

In a roundtable brainstorming session of experts for the Pakistan Project led by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), there was growing apprehension about the “formalisation of the process of capture of state power by Islamists by democratic means”.

Smruti Pattanaik, co-ordinator for the project, says “Imran Khan emerging as kingmaker in the polls will worry India because no matter how liberal he is as a leader, his party has links with the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC).” The DPC comprises of 40 right-wing religious groups in Pakistan, whose patrons include Hafiz Saeed, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief accused of orchestrating the 2008 Mumbai attacks; Fazl-ur-Rehman Khaleel, founder of the banned Harkat-ul-Mujahideen; and former ISI chief Hamid Gul.

There has been stringent criticism of the DPC by the English media in Pakistan, which is heartening, but there is also reason to believe it is “giving clear shape for the first time in many years to an underworld of hyper-nationalism, militancy, sectarianism and faith-based politics whose influence in Pakistan has until now operated largely beneath the surface.” An impression of tacit backing by the Pakistan army headquartered in Rawalpindi only exacerbates suspicions across the border.

The last few diplomatic encounters have also been setbacks. The beheading of an Indian soldier on the Line of Control in early January began the tailspin. Recently, the death of Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh in a Pakistani jail led to a retaliatory strike on Sanaullah Haq, a Pakistani prisoner at an Indian jail in Jammu. It has ended badly. Sanaullah’s death is being interpreted as tit-for-tat diplomacy. The shrill media coverage on both sides of the border has polarised public opinions further.

Depending on how you want to look at it, the Pew Poll 2013 infers that Pakistanis feel as threatened by the Taliban as they do by India. “When asked to choose which is the greatest threat to their country – India, the Taliban or al Qaeda – respondents are divided between India (38 percent) and the Taliban (33 percent). Only 4 percent name al Qaeda. Views have shifted significantly since last year, when 59 percent chose India and 23 percent said the Taliban.” The polls also said 45 percent of Pakistanis were worried about the influence of India in Afghanistan.

The Political Barometer, a survey conducted by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, has also raised eyebrows. It projects that while China was the most popular country in Pakistan, only 28 percent of its respondents would vote for a party which pledged peaceful relations with India. The survey shows an “alarming trend in which  society is getting more radicalized where 53 percent want the government to promote hijab; 30 percent consider honor killing acceptable and justified and 26 percent  want the government to ban women working along with men.” On the upside, 72 percent believe minorities should have equal rights.

In an era where perceptions drive reality, these figures will only make many Indians more uncomfortable. The 2008 Mumbai attacks are still very much a fresh memory. In the run-up to Indian elections due in 2014, mass opinion is already being mobilised. Pakistan is often a rallying point, considered a domestic issue more often rather than a foreign policy one. With political consensus broken on the peace process with Pakistan and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party pushing the embattled Indian government to take a more hardline stand, New Delhi’s concerns will revolve not around who captures the throne in Pakistan, but what they do afterwards. Uncertainty will continue to be the driving principle in India-Pakistan ties.

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