In 2024, three relationships will be closely watched: the US-China rivalry, the emerging India-US partnership, and India-China ties.
The economic shock of COVID-19 in 2020-2021 and subsequent escalating debt burdens, the ongoing Ukraine war now in its third year, and, in 2023, the eruption of the Gaza conflict, repeatedly jolted the economies of all countries in South Asia. The smaller and more vulnerable economies of all of India’s neighbours have been hit hard, leading to countrywide protests and in some instances, even street violence in 2023. Maldives just had its election in September and in 2024, all South Asian countries (except Afghanistan and Nepal) are scheduled to go to the polls, adding a degree of political uncertainty to the mix.
Of all the forthcoming elections, perhaps the Indian election is the most predictable. Most political pundits concur that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is headed for a historic third term though opinions differ on how many seats the BJP will win in the Lok Sabha and whether it will need coalition partners. In January, Bhutan is heading for a change of government; Sheikh Hasina is likely to stay put in Bangladesh though polarisation has risen significantly; Pakistan’s outcome in February is more uncertain given the role that the courts and the military may play; and, in Sri Lanka, the election will only take place in September or later.
This churn in the region is occurring when there are fundamental structural shifts under way. Three relationships will be observed carefully by the neighbours: first, the US-China rivalry at the global level; second, the India-US emerging partnership, and finally, India-China relations that have not recovered since the nosedive it took in 2020 following Galwan. How these evolve and how India’s neighbours respond will influence India’s neighbourhood policies.
Legacy of British India
Historically, India has had difficult relations with its neighbours, in large part because of the legacy of the multiple partitions that it went through. Following three Anglo-Burma wars over a span of nearly 60 years, from 1886 to 1937, Burma became a province of British India and thereafter a separate colony till its independence in 1948. British East India Company’s conquest of Sri Lanka began during the last decade of the 18th century with the coastal areas and in 1802, it became a Crown colony, administered from Madras. Over the next two decades, the British gained control over the entire island introducing plantation crops like tea, coffee, and rubber for which large numbers of indentured Indian labour was brought in. Eventually, Sri Lanka became an independent country in 1948. The most traumatic partition was in 1947 that led to the creation of Pakistan in the name of a separate homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Even after East Pakistan seceded in 1971 to become Bangladesh, Pakistan remains the second largest country in the region and remains locked in a hostile relationship with India. Lasting hostility has in turn cast a shadow on any developments at a regional level.
Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal were always independent and had a long tradition of trade relations and people-to-people exchanges with the neighbouring Indian States over the centuries. However, all three kingdoms had run-ins leading to wars with British India during the 18th and early 19th centuries. These conflicts ended with the establishment of boundaries between the three kingdoms and British India and in the process, the three relinquished sovereignty over their “defence and foreign affairs” by accepting British “guidance” through the appointment of plenipotentiary Political Agents, who in turn reported to the Viceroy in India.
This is the legacy that India inherited in 1947 as all the newly independent states struggled to consolidate their new-found sovereignty.
Independent India’s challenges
As a buffer state between India and Afghanistan, Pakistan inherited the borderlands with Afghanistan and the problems of the Durand Line that divided the Pashtun homelands. The treatment of Hindu, Madhesi, and Tamil minorities with Pakistan (and post-1971 Bangladesh), Nepal, and Sri Lanka respectively, often became a domestic preoccupation for India. In the north-east, the restive tribes often sought to set up camps across the border in Myanmar as the Indian state sought to integrate these into the national mainstream, an unfinished exercise as recent developments in Manipur have shown. What this means is that India’s neighbourhood policies were, and remain, more intimately connected with our domestic policy than is often appreciated. On the flip side, societal and identity conflicts in India’s border states aroused interests in these countries that caused resentment in Delhi. Merely drawing lines on maps does not create sovereignties. British India was the paramount military power in the region and could enforce its will; a fragmented independent India, preoccupied with consolidating its own sovereignty over the 500 plus princely states and a war with Pakistan in 1947, has never enjoyed that unquestioned authority.
The partitions also divided the economic space for a newly independent India. The creation of East Pakistan made India’s north-eastern States more distant and remote while the jute-based economy of the region was shattered. In the west, the sources of all the rivers flowing through Pakistan lie in India (and for Kabul River, in Afghanistan) creating dependencies. India’s northern river basins of the Ganges and Yamuna are almost entirely fed by the rivers originating in the Nepal Himalayan ranges flowing southwards and then eastwards into the Bay of Bengal.
This legacy meant that Indian diplomacy in the neighbourhood lacked both the economic and the military resources to deliver on its policy objectives that it inherited as the successor state to British India. As these countries struggled with their own sovereignty issues, their internal political squabbles often attracted Indian involvement. These involvements also left long-term scars on the relationships. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 would not have happened without Indian political and material support, and yet in less than five years there was a growing anti-India sentiment that was exploited by the military regimes that succeeded Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The struggle by the Tamils for their rights in Sri Lanka led to a violent insurgency, and the ill-advised deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka (1987-90) still rankles deeply. In Nepal, every political movement towards democracy has somehow involved India because it was the natural refuge for the asylum seekers, from King Tribhuvan in 1950 to the Nepali Congress leaders seeking democratic reform. None of the Maoists who waged a decade-long insurgency from the mid 1990s onwards ever sought refuge in China but took advantage of the open border with India. And yet, there remains an anti-India sentiment that surfaces repeatedly, stoked, and exploited by local politicians to demonstrate their nationalist credentials. Events like the 2015 economic squeeze by India (Nepalis call it a blockade) after Nepal adopted its new constitution leading to protests by the Madhesis in the Terai will remain a lasting pain point. Indian diplomats are often accused of arrogance and lacking empathy, earning them the unflattering sobriquet of a Viceroy or Pro-Consul.
The near-permanent hostility with Pakistan has meant that proposals for regional cooperation that are floated by India’s neighbours (SAARC was proposed by Bangladesh’s Gen Ziaur Rehman) often arouse Indian apprehensions. Even when India has overcome its reservations (especially under the Gujral Doctrine of “non-reciprocity”) and offered constructive proposals, these have often floundered, leaving India to come up with sub-regional initiatives. It is a good reminder of Tulsidas’ line from Ramcharitmanas when Lord Ram realises and declares, Bhay bin hoye nahin preet (there cannot be love/respect without a modicum of fear).
Modi’s India and ‘neighbourhood first’
On taking over as Prime Minister a decade ago, Modi declared a “neighbourhood first” foreign policy. He followed it up with his first two foreign visits to Bhutan and Nepal. These visits were successful but follow-up and economic delivery was lacking. Modi’s personalised diplomacy with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan and President Xi Jinping soon ran aground and since then, India’s neighbourhood policy has been episodic. The sole definitive action with respect to the neighbourhood from the Modi government has been the repeated postponements of the SAARC summit since 2016 after the Uri attack. However, the sub-regional initiatives like BIMSTEC (The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and BBIN (The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal Initiative) promoted by India have been neither particularly noteworthy nor majorly successful.
One key reason is that India has not put forward a coherent policy for South Asia in any consistent fashion, preferring instead to deal with each neighbour bilaterally as this put India at an advantage. For the neighbours, too, there were not many options. India was wary of any superpower presence in the region though Pakistan had joined SEATO and CENTO, two US-led military alliances. Development projects funded by India proceeded at the same leisurely pace as in India. The situation began to change with the growth of regionalisation, followed by globalisation. More significantly, China began to emerge as a global economic power and its footprint expanded, including in South Asia.
China had enjoyed close strategic ties with Pakistan since the 1960s, but it also began to emerge as an economic investor. Now the other neighbours had a choice. A decade ago, China launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to fund strategic infrastructure like roads, railways, ports and power stations, and transmission networks. Its deeper pockets and more efficient implementation made it an attractive partner. The economic presence was soon followed by political influence. During the Cold War, India had practised its own variant of the Monroe doctrine in the region but it becomes more difficult when its own neighbour that shared land borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar emerges as an economic superpower. Further, China did not have the complicated legacy of British India in the region and the intertwined minority ties with South Asia. This enables it to have a less emotive and a more transactional approach towards the region. In the last three years, there is a noticeable backlash against the BRI in South Asia and elsewhere but Chinese presence in the region is now a reality.
During the last decade, Modi has been changing India’s image and how it is perceived. From kinetic retaliation for terrorist attacks originating from Pakistani territory to the alleged targeted assassinations of Khalistani terrorists on foreign soil, from doing away with Article 370 to an open espousal of majoritarianism and Hindutva, Modi wants to be the architect of transforming a soft, indecisive India into a more self-confident, assertive, and muscular Bharat. A third Modi term will sharpen and strengthen these trends. India’s neighbours are sensitive to the changes, as these are filtered into the neighbourhood policies.
- India has not consistently proposed a coherent policy for South Asia, instead preferring bilateral dealings that is to its advantage.
- The growth of regionalisation and globalisation has led to China’s rise as a global economic power, expanding its footprint in South Asia.
- Modi wants to be the architect of transforming a soft, indecisive India into a more self-confident, assertive, and muscular Bharat. India’s neighbours are sensitive to the changes.
Election season in 2024
The Maldives election last September brought in President Mohammed Muizzu, who had fought on an “India out” platform to distinguish him from his predecessor Ibrahim Solih who had governed with an “India first” policy. Muizzu’s first announcement was to seek the removal of the 70-odd Indian military personnel deployed there to maintain and operate two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft gifted by India. In December, he decided to pull out of the 2019 bilateral agreement for cooperation in hydrology, following it up by skipping the Colombo Security Conclave that includes India, Sri Lanka,and Mauritius. Since the introduction of multiparty democracy in Maldives nearly two decades ago, every elected President’s first foreign visit has been to Delhi: Muizzu has already visited Turkey and Dubai and is now scheduled to visit China. Parliamentary elections due in 2024 might offer India some comfort, but it is too soon to predict.
Sheikh Hasina is poised to win a historic fourth term in Bangladesh in the elections scheduled on January 7. The main opposition party BNP is boycotting the polls and has mounted street protests. A harsh government crackdown has provoked criticism in the West. India has three key demands—protection of minorities, no support to anti-India elements, and connectivity. Sheikh Hasina has been responsive, in varying degrees, on all three. At the same time, she has maintained close ties with China. As India-China rivalry sharpens, her challenge will be to avoid too close an embrace with either while not crossing India’s red lines.
The final round of Bhutan’s parliamentary elections is due on January 9 and the options will be between former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay (2013-18) or former civil servant-turned-politician Dasho Pema Chewang. The question here is the progress in boundary talks with China, which resumed last year after being frozen since the Doklam crisis. October also saw the first ever visit by the Bhutanese Foreign Minister to China. Meanwhile, Bhutan is also strengthening economic ties with India by planning a 1,000 sq km international city on the Assam border, connected by road and rail links. Gelephu is expected to be a green township with zero-emission industries. Bhutan’s opening to the world has so far been calibrated, but there appears to be a slight quickening of the pace to create economic opportunities for its youth who have been migrating out in recent years.
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Pakistan has been grappling with multiple challenges that have forced it to turn inwards. Imran Khan remains behind bars and his party has seen many departures. Conventional wisdom indicates that Nawaz Sharif, who returned from exile with the blessings of the Army, should get his fourth term. His earlier terms were cut short, each time because of deteriorating relations with the Army. Has he mellowed and will the Army trust him are questions that will be clearer after the elections on February 8. Sharif will be keen to improve relations with India, but the Modi government’s interest is limited to managing relations rather than moving towards a resolution of historical issues.
Sri Lanka’s elections, in the last quarter of 2024, will take place in a polarised atmosphere. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, sworn in last year after President Gotabaya Rajapakse was forced to quit after a historic aragalaya (struggle) galvanised the country, is his party’s sole MP and continues only with the support of Rajapakse’s SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna). The SLPP is adept at whipping up nationalist sentiment among the majority Sinhala middle class, but the current preoccupation of the people is the economic challenges. Wickremesinghe is pushing for reforms and favours talks with minorities to bring about a devolution that makes the SLPP uncomfortable. The other two mainstream parties, the SJB (Samagi Jana Balawegaya) and the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), are mired in internal disarray.
Relations with the Taliban regime in Kabul are limited after India reopened its embassy in 2022, calling it a technical mission to coordinate Indian humanitarian assistance. The Afghan embassy in Delhi is shuttered and India has not agreed so far to let the Taliban man it. Visas remain suspended. In Nepal, elections are due in 2027. The Maoist-UML coalition that took power in end-2022 proved short-lived. Within three months, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist), or the UML, had quit and Maoist Prime Minister Prachanda found a new coalition partner in the Nepali Congress. Under the constitution, there cannot be a vote of confidence for the first two years and any political jockeying is likely to begin only towards end-2024.
Myanmar is caught up in its internal struggles after the military takeover in February 2021. The pushback this time has been much stronger than in the past, possibly because even the limited political, economic, and social freedoms that existed a decade prior enabled the emergence of a middle class. The resistance this time cuts across ethnicities and in the north, has support from China. India has continued to work with the junta to promote its connectivity projects.
Regional elections are not the only source of uncertainty for South Block. On January 13, Taiwan elects a new president and another DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) victory will sharpen tensions with Beijing, impacting US-China relations. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be struggling to win a third term in June and towards the year end, the UK will have a new Prime Minister. The US election on November 5 remains the most anticipated, especially if Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination. Election forecasters have their hands full in 2024, as do Indian diplomats.
Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat and currently Distinguished Fellow at the Council for Strategic and Defence Research.