Many challenges for India in its neighbourhood The Statesman 03 Jan 2023 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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Many challenges for India in its neighbourhood The Statesman 03 Jan 2023

          If the end of 2022 is taken as a benchmark, 2023 will witness upheavals in India’s neighbourhood, challenging India’s diplomatic ability. Neighbourhood first policy, less for Pakistan, will become a challenge. The nomination of Pushpa Kamal Dahal as the new PM of Nepal, growing terrorist activities, political and economic instability in Pak, protests in Bangladesh as it faces a financial crisis with increased inflation, while moving into an election year, Sri Lanka’s struggle to emerge out of an economic collapse are some of the challenges facing the region.

          In Kathmandu, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, widely known by his nom de guerre, Prachanda, was sworn in as PM for the third time. His party had received just 11% of the votes and won only 32 seats in the 275-member house. He obtained support of seven parties including that of Oli, who is known to be pro-China. The outgoing PM, Sher Bahadur Deuba, who had won the largest number of seats, an ally of Delhi, lost out when Prachanda walked out of the coalition in a dispute on who would be the PM first. Prachanda will remain PM for a minimum of two years as the Nepalese constitution prohibits any non-confidence motion for that period.

          As part of the agreement, Oli will become PM post two and a half years. Oli would also nominate his representative as the next President, as the current President finishes her term in Jan. Reports were circulating that Chinese envoys held multiple rounds of talks to ensure that the current government has a pro-China tilt, while India watched. It was China which forced Oli to contain his ambitions and open the door for Prachanda. China ensured that Dueba, with a pro-India tilt is out of reckoning. While Prachanda has promised to balance ties between Delhi, Beijing and the US, it appears unlikely, as Oli lurks in the background.

          Sheikh Hasina, who won a thumping victory in 2018, had managed to subdue her opposition. Her economic model, which enabled the country to grow rapidly, has become its nemesis. Protests in December on rising fuel and food prices, led by the opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), are the most serious challenge faced by her government. Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserves are depleting while accusations of financial corruption rising. The opposition demands resignation of her government and elections, none of which will easily be met.

Elections are scheduled to be held before December 2023, for which there has been no announcement thus far. Her brutal crackdown on protests has invited global condemnation, with the US sanctioning security agencies involved in subduing protestors. As 2023 rolls in, discontent will increase, which could impact her chances in forthcoming elections. While Sheikh Hasina is pro-Delhi and has personal ties with India, the BNP is decidedly anti-India. China has been desperately seeking to wean Bangladesh away from Delhi. Will India help Sheikh Hasina by easing its objections on the Teesta waters?  

China has always been concerned about Columbo-Delhi relations. It managed to push Sri Lanka into a debt trap. Currently 10% to 15% of Sri Lanka’s external debt is held by China while Chinese creditors hold another 19%. Simultaneously, China has control over the Hambantota port. Unless China restructures Columbo’s debt, its loans from the IMF are in jeopardy. Meanwhile Sri Lanka’s budget for the next financial year, passed early Dec, is claimed to be IMF friendly which could pull Sri Lanka out of the financial mess by end 2023. Will Sri Lanka manage to revive its economy in 2023 is to be seen.

Maldives is heading for elections in Sept 2023. India and China have jostled for space in this strategically important island nation. China’s entry into Maldives, hoping to push it into a debt trap and secure a military base forced India to react. China gained traction during the presidency of Yameen only to be pushed away by his successor, Ibrahim Solih, who brought India back into prominence.  PM Modi attended the swearing in of President Solih in 2018.  Yameen and his supporters have been pushing anti-India protests. However, with Yameen sentenced to prison for 11 years for corruption and money laundering, the scenario may prove beneficial for India.

Pakistan faces multiple internal challenges. The security situation is worsening with anti-Pak groups, including Baloch insurgents, TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) and the Islamic State growing in strength and confidence. Suicide attacks in Islamabad have added to concerns. Terrorist attacks from Afghan soil have compelled the state to enhance military deployment and consider taking the fight into terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan. Tensions along the Durand Line are on the rise. Protests by Baloch have brought Chinese construction activity at Gwadar to a standstill. 

Economically, Pakistan is on the verge of default. Shehbaz Sharif’s recent comment that he was unaware of the economic mess when he became PM, indicates that the current coalition has no solution to the economic crisis. China has offered a bailout but that appears to be to protect its own investments. Imran continues to dream of becoming a PM for life and is therefore pushing for early elections.

Imran’s antics of protests to bring about the surrender of the government were stalled with the arrival of General Asim Munir in Rawalpindi. The message of behave or perish was well conveyed, forcing Imran to back down. Dissolution of assemblies early this year could force elections. Simultaneously, legal steps are currently underway to bar Imran from politics.

A Pakistan on the verge of collapse is not good news for India. Instability in Pak, leading to anger amongst the masses, would push the deep state to seek avenues to divert public attention. What better than a terrorist strike in India which could result in an Indian backlash. This could unite the country and compel them to forget current problems.

India has to remain on top of emerging challenges in its neighbourhood. It lost its grip on Kathmandu. Further slip-ups would prove beneficial to China. Internal upheavals in neighbouring countries will have a fallout within India. India’s smaller neighbours expect support, which if not forthcoming, gravitates them towards China. Diplomacy in the neighbourhood has just become interesting.