This year is the year for elections in South Asia and has already brought unexpected electoral changes in all three elections held in 2018. From Nepal to Pakistan and most recently in Bhutan, which has just conducted its primary round of elections for the National Assembly. Elections are due in another two countries, in Maldives later this month and in Bangladesh before the end of the year. With the transformations in South Asian capitals, India has had to relook and tweak its relations with them.
The new year brought a new government in Kathmandu after the Communist parties in Nepal formed a Left coalition under the leadership of KP Oli and won a resounding victory. In Pakistan, former celebrity cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party won an unexpectedly large majority in the elections that were contested without the presence of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. But the most unexpected result was the Bhutan elections where the incumbent ruling party, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was relegated to the third position, losing its chance to contest the second and final round of polling.
Bhutan’s elections are held in two rounds; after the first round of polling, the two leading political parties contest a run-off election to choose the winner. Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) parties will be in the contest on October 18. The DNT, which got the highest number of votes, is a relatively new party headed by well-respected surgeon Lotey Tshering. The DPT was the main opposition party that had lost to PDP in the 2013 elections.
Anti-incumbency and ill-judged change of candidates is believed to have affected the ruling PDP’s chances. DNT is said to have got the benefit of postal ballots, a facility available to the armed forces, government officials, those working abroad, and students: a section of voters who related to the DNT’s emphasis on improving healthcare and welfare measures.
While the DNT is a new party, the DPT had been in power from 2008 to 2013 when its Prime Minister had caused concern in India with his overtures to China. Thimphu had plunged in a crisis after New Delhi stopped supplies of oil to Bhutan when its government failed to extend an agreement for oil import. The oil crisis switched the electoral mood resulting in the DPT’s defeat. The new government in Thimphu would mean establishing ties with the leaders of the new party or resetting New Delhi’s equations with the DPT’s new leadership, some of whom believe that it was the oil shortage that cost them the 2013 election.
The KP Oli government came in after a vigorous campaign projecting an image of the previous Oli government standing up to India during the border blockade by Nepal’s minority Madhesi community that had India’s tacit support. While Oli has claimed an equidistance policy from India and China, Kathmandu has been making efforts to maintain a balance in its neighbourhood relations by rapidly building its ties with China. New Delhi has been making careful efforts to restore bilateral relations with Nepal.
In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan is a new entrant in government, and has an image of a leader backed by the Pakistani army. After congratulating the newly elected leader in Islamabad, New Delhi has been watching the situation unfold in Pakistan before it makes any moves towards engaging with the new government in a substantial way.
The elections in Maldives would have an impact on New Delhi’s strained relationship with Male. The main opposition parties: Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Jumhooree Party (JP), Adhaalath Party (AP) and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s dissident faction of the ruling party formed a coalition with a joint candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. The leaders of these parties including Gayoom are in prison on various charges and disqualified from contesting elections.
Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen has drawn closer to China even as the US, European Union and India have distanced themselves from Male. Relations between India and Maldives have been under pressure ever since Yameen imposed a state of emergency after sacking the top Supreme Court judges following their order to release political prisoners and reinstate opposition legislators. Yameen ordered the arrest of his half-brother Gayoom for being part of what he described as an attempted judicial coup. The opposition parties retain their support base (they won more than half of the Local Council elections last year). But there are fears that the elections would not be held in a free and fair manner.
A new government in Male would give evidence of the credibility of the election process and open a new turn to India-Maldives ties. In case Yameen is re-elected, India would need to re-examine its ties with the island nation. India’s Neighbourhood First policy requires prioritizing relations with the neighbours in line with the changes.