PLEBISCITES IN SOUTH ASIA
It’s not very clear whether there is any regional political trend in the making, going by the patterns emerging in each South Asian countries which recently underwent or undergoing general elections. Changes took place in Pakistan and Nepal. Afghanistan will see more of a transition to a new era in which a new leader will take over, with the continuity of the ruling group and with a new reality of reduced western presence in his country. Bangladesh and Maldives are still in a kind of stalemate.
Change of central government in the biggest country of the region is almost writing in the wall now.
Political analysts are now burning the midnight fuel to grapple with the impending change in India and its ramifications for rest of the region. Interestingly, political changes in these different neighbouring countries don’t look too much interconnected; although it was not exactly the case in the past.
Insurgency in Kashmir, where Pakistan played a part, and especially the persecution of Hindu Pandits in the valley assisted the rise of right wing force, the BJP, in India. ‘Kargil War’, in a way, caused Nawaz Sharif the power last time. Cutting off Indian support for LTTE helped the Sri Lankans to achieve a decisive military victory against the outfit in the north and east of Sri Lanka which also got Mahinda Rajapaksa reelected. Painting the secular Awami League as pro-Indian was a common political tactic of center-right and far right forces in Bangladesh especially in the context of Indian little or non-deliverance on key bilateral issues crucial for Bangladesh.
Let’s start with India. Economy, growth and ‘Gujarat Model’/ ‘Brand Modi’, the latter rightly or falsely, appear to be the key fault lines as they were constructed in the public discourse in the run up to the election. The other important issues are of course security and corruption as usual. The BJP has moderated much in the so-called core agendas of it with the view to attain greater acceptability and bag more pre and post-election allies. One needs to understand that the BJP isn’t really a theocratic party equivalent to the Islamists. It’s not that they aren’t by choice; rather it’s for the fact that it’s not possible in case of the internally diverse faith system called ‘Hinduism’. They wanted to replace the established identity conception ‘Indian’ with an overstretched idea of ‘Hindu’ drawing from some arcane and tortured arguments. The clamour is dying a natural death. But they got their foot in Indian national politics in the meantime, and moved on to more rational agendas like growth, security, stability and anti-corruption.
But a prospective BJP-led NDA government under Modi may not have any smooth initial run domestically. In domestic developmental and governance sectors, it would be interesting to see how an erstwhile RSS activist handles the complex federal bureaucracy of India and hoards them together to work for his growth philosophy, if he can at all formulate one at the Union level. Again, the global economy hasn’t yet recovered fully and thus it’s not clear whether any export driven acceleration is possible for Indian economy. Modi may try to attract more domestic and international investment. But BJP’s explicit hostile position on FDI in multi-brand retail has already sent a wrong signal. Modi might have done something, true or partly true, at much easier provincial level; but at union level it’s a different ball game, a much complex and difficult one. Subtle and well thought out approach may be required instead of ‘press hard’ Gujarat tactic. Again it’s highly doubtful whether he has much clue about the functioning of global economy. That would mean more dependency on some cabinet colleagues and advisors. Picking the right advice out of competing many isn’t easy either.
The probable BJP led government won’t be very innovative regionally. We may not expect any ‘Gujral Doctrine’ like policy in South Asia. They will rather be conservative yet pragmatic in their approach. Domestic security wise, they are unlikely to destabilise any established status quo in Kashmir, North-East or elsewhere. There could be intense anti-Maoist drive in central India though.
How would India’s relation with Pakistan play out under a probable Modi-led government for next five years? If the BJP-led government survives its full term, it will deal with Nawaz Sharif across the border for most of the time at the least. Sharif, of course, won’t be the only one who would dictate terms in relation to India. Due to the pressure from Pakistan Army, Nawaz Sharif may not yield much on core issues with India e.g. Kashmir; neither is he likely to take any direct aggressive posture. He, nor Pakistan Army, can afford that given the problem in their own backyard e.g. Khayber Pakhtunkhwa, Baluchistan and, of course, Afghanistan.
Whether anyone admits or not the India-Pakistan game is diffusing beyond the traditional fault lines of the two countries and getting trickier day by day. Both the countries accuse each other for taking sides in Afghan conflict. India asserts that it is being affected by terrorist acts of non-state actors from Pakistan and also from Pakistani Intelligence sponsored actors. 2008 Mumbai terror attack is still vivid in the minds of the Indians. Pakistan considers India is trying to neutralise it by creating troubles clandestinely in Baluchistan etc.
Nawaz Sharif won’t repeat the mistake he made last time i.e. handling Pakistan army in a crude way. He would rather try to get some negotiated space, if at all, as far as Pakistan’s defence /military- strategic policies are concerned. Or else he will remain content with whatever authority is in hand. It’s true that Justice Ifthekhar Chaudhury’s resolve has strengthened Pakistani Judiciary to maintain a check and balance in unlawful usurp of state power. Domestically, Nawaz also has corruption cleanup and economic and service deliverance issues. He would like to maintain the existing status quo with India but won’t lean too much and antagonize Pakistan army’s ‘hate India’ ego. It’s unlikely that India-Pakistan relation would see any dramatic breakthrough. It would also be interesting to watch India’s relation with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka’s case it would largely be indifferent. But it would substantially depend on whether the forthcoming BJP-led government requires any support from any major Tamil party form Tamil Nadu. In case it takes help of a Tamil party to survive in the centre, it will have very little flexibility in case of Sri Lanka, the country which India is needed to keep in reasonably good terms in order to keep it away from increasing Chinese influence. Same would be the case with Bangladesh with regards to Mamata Banerjee.
In Bangladesh India has key security and connectivity to the Seven Sisters issue as the country neighbours India’s troubled northeast; but in return, Bangladesh wants its lifeline – the due share of common rivers and few other important things e.g. long overdue exchange of border enclaves and easier access to Indian market etc.
In one hand India wants to exert its clout in South Asia and the adjacent waters, on the other is broadly allied with the US to keep Chinese influence in the region and in Indian Ocean under check. The strategy is a settled one, even for the new BJP led govt. But it’s not clear how much will it engage with China which the Manmohan Singh did to a reasonable extent. Indian public opinion, media and intelligentsia are normally in double minds with regards to China. They appreciate rapid growth of China and desire more trade and investment ties with China; yet they are apprehensive about any minor boarder issues with China given the 1962 memories which are often inculcated in public discourse. The BJP is likely to get closer to the US as part of the strategic alliance against the rise of Chinese power. Modi will be forced to forget his US visa snub few years back for the greater cause.
The only new trend in the domestic politics of couple of south Asian nations (only Pakistan and India basically) is the rise of a third force on the ground of anti-corruption campaign. It’s more applicable for Pakistan’s PTI led by the inspiring Imran Khan. The same is happening in India in a smaller scale. But neither of these would change the relationship quotient among the South Asian nations much now or in the near future.
All in all, there would be some movements in the dynamics of interstate relations in South Asia and beyond in relation to the countries of the region in the light of recent elections in these nations and the general public mood; but no fundamental changes are in the offing. Regionally, there would be no quick solutions for the traditional issues, lingering for long. South Asians have to learn to live with this bit of uncertainty. There is no escape from it in foreseeable future.
The author is an associate research fellow in Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies. His Twitter handle is @Sarwar558