The Year Ends: With Significant Trends From South Asia
This is the first of The Citizen Yearender series starting today.
In 2017, South Asian countries witnessed significant developments which would have long term consequences for themselves and the region as a whole.
India saw a two-month standoff with China over the frontier in Doklam, which, given the high decibel sabre rattling by the Chinese, could have resulted in a full-scale Sino-Indian war with disastrous consequences for India’s fragile economy. But the catastrophe was avoided by the Narendra Modi government’s firmness mixed with some uncharacteristic restraint.
However, India continued to oppose Beijing’s bid to extend its One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR) in the South Asian region. But its please that accepting development projects under OBOR would land the recipient countries in a debt trap fell on deaf ears. To thwart China’s bid to get an economic and strategic foothold in its backyard, India pledged billions of dollars in aid to the countries in the region, but this was no match to the billions pledged by China.
Entrenchment of Hindutva
Meanwhile, within India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi consolidated his power by sweeping the Assembly elections in the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. It was an emphatic vote for Hindutva or the Hinduization of India, because the BJP swept the polls without fielding a single Muslim candidate. But Hindut-vites suffered a setback in Punjab, indicating that Hindutva may not be universally applicable. That governance issues could not be brushed aside was proved later in the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections. The Congress lost Himachal Pradesh to the BJP because of its poor performance and the BJP was mauled, if not defeated, in Gujarat, because it had relied too much on Hindutva and too little on social and economic issues.
However, the BJP is expected to see its victory in Gujarat as an endorsement of Hindutva and continue to use it because it is its USP.
Militarized Islamism in Pakistan
Musharraf said In Pakistan, the Supreme Court ousted Nawaz Sharif from the office of Prime Minister for laundering of ill-gotten money as revealed in the Panama Papers of 2016. But this welcome development was overshadowed by the murder and mayhem regularly perpetrated by radical Islamist terror groups and efforts by the armed forces to re-enter governance by using some of these militant groups.
Wahabi militant groups were in collusion with the army to keep the civilian government in check and to keep up the tension with India, which is necessary for both to be politically influential. Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League (MML) and Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) are already in mainstream politics with the army’s encouragement.
Add to this former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf’s declaration about coming back to politics with the support of Islamic militants, you have a grim scenario.
“I am the greatest supporter of Lashkar-e-Toiba. LeT and JuD (Jamat ud Dawa) are both very good organizations of Pakistan”. Justifying his stand Musharraf said: “ I have always been in favor of action in Kashmir and I have always been in favor of pressuring the Indian army in Kashmir,” Musharrf said.
Given the Hindutwaite attacks on Muslims in India, including lynching for possessing beef or trading in cows, and the re-establishment of a military-Islamic militant nexus in Pakistan, 2018 could see an intensification of India-Pakistan conflict.
Impact of Rohingya influx
Just when Bangladesh was developing fast economically, and was going after Islamic terrorists ruthlessly, a massive influx of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar upset the plans of the Sheikh Hasina government. Over 600,000 Rohingya were pushed into Bangladesh by the Myanmar military to add to the 400,000 already there since 2012. The influx not only put the government in a spot financially, but strained relations with the India and China, two of the heaviest investors in the country and playing a critical role in the security of Bangladesh.
Both India and China considered Myanmar’s military campaign as a legitimate anti-terrorist action. But while India remained passive as the influx became a flood, China became a mediator to bring about a Bangla-Myanmar agreement on repatriation.
While China was able to gain lost ground in Bangladesh as a result of its mediation, India could not. The Rohingya issue added to the strain on Indo-Bangla relations created earlier by India’s unhelpful stand on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river.
Anti-Indian Islamic radicals could cause problems for Sheikh Hasina if the repatriation of Rohingyas does not begin before the 2018 parliamentary elections, which the pro-Islamic Bangladesh Nationalist Party might not boycott.
Impact of Nepal’s Elections
2017 saw Nepal completing the local, provincial and parliamentary elections as per the new and more democratic 2015 constitution with 33% reservation for women. But the provincial and parliamentary elections brought into power a Left Alliance composed of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center). This could result in Nepal’s lurching towards China rather than India, given the history of contradictions between Nepal and India over constitution making and the status of the Indian-origin Madhesi community.
Nepal had also joined China’s OBOR against India’ wishes. Chinese investments in Nepal could grow to India’s discomfiture given the Left Alliance’s electoral pledge to meet the economic demands of the masses and China’s eagerness to invest in Nepal to take it out of India’s grip.
Sri Lanka Makes Up With China
2017 saw Sri Lanka plunge into a phase of political uncertainty with the National Unity government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe being unable to pull together on critical issues of development and governance. With governmental paralysis alienating the people, the Joint Opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was gaining ground giving rise to the possibility of Sirisena’s followers abandoning him in favor of Rajapaksa during or after the local bodies’ elections in February 2018.
Meanwhile, finding itself cash strapped, the pro-Indian and pro-West Lankan government patched up with China and entered into an agreement on the Hambantota port on terms worse than those agreed upon by the predecessor Rajapaksa government. The US$ 1.4 billion port will now be China’s for the next 99 years along with 15,000 acres of land adjacent to it.
The Hambantota deal worries India as it could lead to the port’s use by the Chinese military eventually if not immediately. In addition, India was irked by the fact that the Lankan government was dragging its feet on the implementation of a number of India-funded projects, without assigning any reason. Indian projects continued to be viewed as politically sensitive and handled with the utmost caution.
Maldives Tilts To China
Relations between the Maldives and India soured in 2012 when the then Maldivian government headed by Mohammed Waheed cancelled the US$ 511 million contract with the Indian company GMR to build the Male International Airport. Relations worsened after the incumbent Yameen government gave the project to China in 2016 for US$ 800 million.
More recently, hackles were raised in New Delhi when the Maldives hurriedly entered into a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China allegedly breaking a promise to sign one with India first. While the Maldivians argue that the FTA with China will give a tremendous boost to the fishing industry in their country, opponents warn that the trade gap will be too wide for Maldives to bear.
However, to mollify India, the Maldives said that India is free to invest in it and that, for its security, the country is tied to India and Sri Lanka, and not China.