Winds of change in South Asian politics

Winds of change in South Asian politics

Gaurab Shumsher Thapa,
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South Asia has witnessed quite a few upheavals in the past few months that could have a lasting effect not only on domestic politics but on international politics as well.

The election results in Pakistan, Bhutan and Maldives were contrary to expectations. Similarly, the power struggle and political infighting in Sri Lanka has caught many by surprise. These scenarios might not have been the results of domestic political factors only but of geopolitical dimensions as well.

The election of cricket-player-turned politician Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party as prime minister in July ended the traditional political dominance of two parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan Peoples Party. Not many had thought Khan would be able to catapult to electoral success considering the poor showing of his party in previous elections.

Khan’s cause was helped by the fact that people were fed up with the level of corruption and poor governance under the previous rules of the two established parties. Claims were also made that the Pakistan Army, which is the most dominant force in Pakistani politics, was responsible for his victory in the elections.

The relationship between nuclear powers Pakistan and India is not only a concerning factor for these two countries, but it is critical for the peace and stability of South Asia in general. Considering Khan’s inexperience in foreign-policy matters, it remains to be seen how he can engage constructively with India.

Kashmir and cross-border terrorism are the two main contentious issues between these two countries. It is highly doubtful that the strong-minded Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, would be willing to give any concessions to Khan on these two issues. Therefore, it is to be seen whether Khan is capable of managing domestic power equations for mending ties with India.

Pakistan is reeling under severe economic difficulties, which led Khan to travel to China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia in pursuit of much-needed financial aid. US President Donald Trump has already decided to cut aid for Pakistan.

Geopolitical dynamics will be at the forefront, as it will only allow China’s increased involvement of in Pakistan. Before his election, Khan was critical of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor considering the financial debts it may heap on Pakistan. CPEC is of strategic importance to China for its access to sea via Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. Therefore, China will not leave any stone unturned for the completion of this project.

Is Bhutan drifting away from India’s orbit?

The third-place finish of Bhutanese prime minister Tshering Tobgay’s People’s Democratic Party in general elections held in September and October was least expected. The Druk Nyamrup Tshongpa party, which did not hold a single parliamentary seat previously, came out on top and its leader Lotay Tshering was elected as the prime minister three weeks ago.

The results of Bhutan’s elections too bear geopolitical significance. Last year India and China were embroiled in a border standoff at Doklam, which is a strategic tri-junction among China, Bhutan and India. While India and China were at the center of the dispute, Bhutan’s role was little regarded by both those countries. While India has traditionally maintained total influence in Bhutan’s domestic, economic and foreign affairs, China and Bhutan do not share diplomatic relations, although contacts between the two countries have steadily increased over the years.

Tobgay was known to be closer to India. The awareness of the people of Bhutan has grown over the years and maybe they do not want too much influence by one particular country. Bhutan also has a young monarch who must have a vision on taking his country forward.

In this sense, the election results could have been the people’s expression that Bhutan needs to diversify its foreign policy and enhance relations with China for helping in their economic development. India must have been unhappy with the election results. It will now try to keep the new government from drifting away from its orbit and make sure Chinese overtures into Bhutan are nullified.

But it will have its hands full, because stopping Chinese influence in South Asia has become something unimaginable in recent times.

India nullifies China in Maldives

The result of the Maldivian presidential elections held in September was truly shocking. Incumbent President Abdulla Yameen, who had ruled Maldives with an iron fist and was tipped to be re-elected, lost to a less known political figure, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

India and China have been engaged in a geopolitical competition in Maldives for the past few years. Although a tiny state, the strategic value of Maldives in the Indian Ocean is precious to both India and China. Yameen developed close ties with Beijing and handed several major projects to China, much to the dismay of India, which had traditionally maintained strong influence in the archipelago.

Whether Yameen miscalculated the probability of his winning re-election by being overconfident or India played a covert role in his defeat is anybody’s guess. In any case, Solih’s victory has been interpreted as India’s victory over China in Maldives, and he is expected to overturn several decisions made by Yameen that were favorable to Chinese interests.

The importance of this result for India was so much that Modi undertook his first visit to the island state during Solih’s swearing-in ceremony. As it is the policy of the Chinese government to engage with whoever is in power in that particular state, it will surely try to reach out to Solih as part of its bid to maintain strategic balance in the Indian Ocean region.

Sri Lankan politics in tatters

Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was abruptly fired by President Maithripala Sirisena on charges of corruption last month. He subsequently appointed his mentor-turned-foe and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new prime minister. As it appeared that Rajapaksa would not be able to prove his majority in Parliament, Sirisena suspended the legislature. The Supreme Court reinstated the Parliament, but the power struggle has not ended, as Sirisena and Rajapaksa are not willing to let Wickremesinghe return to office.

From the perspective of regional geopolitics, Wickremesinghe is considered close to India and Rajapaksa is known to be anti-Indian and pro-Chinese. The geo-strategic location of Sri Lanka is crucial to maintain influence in the Indian Ocean region. Therefore, the two Asian giants have been competing with each other to gain the upper hand in Sri Lankan politics. Critics have accused Rajapaksa and Sirisena of pushing Sri Lanka into an inescapable debt trap set by China over the deal concerning the Hambantota Port.

Sri Lanka is reeling under a serious constitutional crisis as both factions are unwilling to cede power. India is unwilling to get actively involved in resolving the scenario. The modus operandi of the Chinese has always been not to be seen as interfering in the internal matters of other countries. Considering the situation at the moment, the Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance seems strong enough to corner Wickremesinghe, and thus China appears to hold the upper hand over India in this geopolitical game.

The need for a stable South Asia

South Asia is one of the most populous and poorest regions in the world. At the same time, South Asia possesses two nuclear rivals, India and Pakistan, with neighboring China trying to wrest the dominant influence of the region away from India.

A stable South Asia is needed not only for the progress and prosperity of the region but also for Asia and the world in general. The strategic importance of South Asian countries has grown tremendously in recent times, attracting the interests of global powers.

The regional political dynamics might change from time to time, but in essence the South Asian countries should prioritize economic development as their prime agenda. Therefore, cooperation for shared prosperity is the need of the hour in South Asia so that it can create a win-win situation for all concerned.

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