India’s neighbourhood may undergo changes The Excelsior 25 Jan 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


India’s neighbourhood may undergo changes

India’s neighbourhood may undergo changes The Excelsior 25 Jan 2024

          The Muizzu government in Maldives came to power on an ‘India Out’ campaign. Relations with India are on a sticky wicket as President Muizzu demands the withdrawal of unarmed Indian soldiers on the island, managing gifted air assets to the country, while Indians call for boycotting tourism in Maldives. In Maldives the battle has always been between pro-India and anti-India factions. How will the current scenario pan out is to be seen, especially as China attempts to regain its foothold in the country.

In Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina ramped up her fourth consecutive tenure (totally five tenures) in recently concluded elections, much to the satisfaction of India. Her Awami League won 223 seats in a house of 300. Hasina’s win was expected after the opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by former PM, Khalida Zia, boycotted elections, demanding the installation of a caretaker government to oversee them. There was some violence during the process, which for Bangladesh is normal. The army had deployed in the country to maintain law and order as was the norm.

          While India, Russia and China congratulated Sheikh Hasina for her victory, the UN, US and UK criticized the election process. The US state department issued a statement mentioning, ‘The US remains concerned by arrests of thousands of political opposition members and reports of irregularities on elections day.  The US shares the view with other observers that these elections were not free or fair and we regret that not all parties participated.’

The statement added, ‘The US condemns violence that took place during elections and in the months leading up to it.  We encourage the Government of Bangladesh to credibly investigate reports of violence and to hold perpetrators accountable.’ Washington has been critical of the Shiekh Hasina government for some time, possibly backing the BNP. Bangladesh was not an invitee for either of the two ‘summit for democracies,’ though quasi democracies like Pakistan were. 

For India, her return implies continuation of ties built over the years. On election day, she had stated, ‘’We are very lucky. India is our trusted friend. During our Liberation War, they supported us. After 1975, when we lost our whole family, they gave us shelter.’ She has balanced her ties between India and China. Despite being a member of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, she has ensured that Chinese loans do not swamp the country. Simultaneously, she has kept India’s security concerns in mind.

Hoping to regain traction, the opposition BNP in Bangladesh has launched an ‘India Out’ campaign inspired by the movement in the Maldives. Social media handles are encouraging Bangladeshis to boycott Indian products. How will the Sheikh Hasina government respond and whether the movement will be supported by the people is to be seen.

In Bhutan, the opposition, People’s Democratic Party won recently held elections garnering two-thirds of the seats. Bhutan faces migration of youth, a stagnating economy (its economy is growing at 1.7% for the past five years), and increasing unemployment. With assistance of India, Bhutan is opening a special economic zone in Gelephu, on the Bhutan-Assam border, where Indian companies are expected to invest. Indo-Bhutan relations will continue to remain stable under the new government, though Bhutan continues its border dialogue with China. 

Sri Lanka is expected to hold its presidential and parliamentary elections sometime this year, though no dates have been announced. Most political parties have nominated their presidential candidates. However, there are doubts if elections will be held, due to economic constraints. Relations with India will be a major subject in the polls. The current president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, supports closer ties with India, while the opposition thinks otherwise. A scenario near similar to what was witnessed in the Maldives elections, can be expected.

The next elections in the neighbourhood are due in Pakistan. They are scheduled for 08 Feb. Pakistan, being a quasi-democracy, the results of elections are already known. Nawaz Sharif, who returned from self-imposed exile in London, will be given his fourth tenure in the PM’s chair. The most popular Pak politician, Imran Khan, remains incarcerated, as also all agencies are working in tandem to ensure that his political party, the PTI, will find it difficult to participate.

Pakistan is facing an election where there is almost no campaigning, since many are already aware of the results. Democracy is a sham in the country but there have been no comments from the so-called defenders of democracy.

When questioned on restrictions placed on Imran Khan’s PTI prior to elections, the US State Department spokesperson, Mathew Miller, stated, ‘It is not for the United States to dictate to Pakistan the exact specifics of how it conducts its elections.’ He added that the US government is committed to ‘supporting a democratic process.’ Thus, while Bangladesh faced criticism, Pakistan gains support.

No matter which government comes to power in Islamabad, it would remain under the watchful eye of Rawalpindi. Every time any PM attempted to take the army by its horns, he/she ended up being overthrown on fake charges.

Also, no new government can resolve Pakistan’s economic mess. It would require change in policies and severe cutting down of expenditure. This will imply improving relations with India, stopping terrorism and curtailing the defence budget. It is unlikely to be acceptable to the army, which is surviving on the India threat. Hence, while Nawaz has stated improving ties with India will be his priority, it will not be easy. Any improvement of ties with India will only happen post elections in India in May this year.

By mid-May, the new Indian government would have been sworn in. As elections draw close Indian democracy would come under greater scrutiny. As Jaishankar stated recently, ‘I expect it (battle of narratives) to reach a crescendo in the first 6 months of this year… As elections come closer…they will actually start to attack the process if it looks like it’s going a way in which the narrative drivers don’t like… They will attack the Supreme Court and Election Commission. We’ve got to figure this out and we have to fight back’

India’s neighbourhood will witness changes in coming months. Maldives, Bangladesh and Bhutan are realities. What else will happen is to be seen.