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Polls in neighborhood pose fresh challenges for India

Even as S Jaishankar makes way for Vijay Gokhale to take over as foreign secretary, India is bracing for a fresh set of challenges as every country in India’s neighbourhood goes in for elections over the next 16 months with some incumbents looking shaky. Nepal was first off the block with its elections in the closing weeks of 2017. If India counted the removal of KP Oli as a success, anti-incumbency and poor political choices by the Deuba government have brought Oli back to power in Kathmandu.
Having campaigned on a strong anti-India and pro-China platform, Oli’s Left Alliance could be the first to serve a full term. Pakistan goes in for general elections in June 2018 although not much is expected in terms of a bilateral breakthrough at present. Maldives is due for presidential elections in September 2018, which is probably the reason why Abdulla Yameen is deeply distrustful of India. Bhutan has its parliamentary elections in the summer of 2018, which might have an effect on how the new government deals with India.
Post Doklam, India’s challenges in this country have increased, and the demand to perform better there has also become more acute. Bangladesh is expected to go in for elections in end 2018-early 2019. These will be very important elections — India has invested deeply in Sheikh Hasina and her government, but after two terms, Hasina is facing sharp anti-incumbency. This will be closely watched in India for the implications it might have for bilateral and regional relations.
Afghanistan has parliamentary elections in July 2018 and presidential elections in April 2019. So, apart from Sri Lanka, every country will look very different by the time India herself goes in for elections early 2019. India’s task is harder for two reasons — first, its successes of today look like failures of tomorrow, which is a constant diplomatic challenge. And secondly, China is a bigger presence, welcomed by almost all of India’s neighbours. India has repeatedly blundered in Nepal with its inconsistencies.
“We lost the hill Nepalis with the blockade, and the Madhesis for lifting the blockade too soon,” said a Nepal analyst. Oli has promised to revert the Buri Gandaki hydro project back to China (outgoing PM Deuba had cancelled the contract). Modi is expected in Kathmandu for the BIMSTEC summit, but will Oli make India his first stop? In addition, while India’s projects are beset with poor implementation, China’s noholds-barred largesse is attractive. For instance, sources said the Pokhara international airport, built by a Chinese government company cost a third more than its estimate, a sign that the deal is not above board.
With Pakistan, the trajectory is only downward. There are no official talks, although two NSAs, Ajit Doval and Nasir Janjua, are believed to be meeting in third countries quietly. However, there are no clarity on these talks. Chinese support and CPEC which India is implacably opposed to make it difficult for the two countries to engage with each other.
Constant infiltration of terrorists into J&K keeps the LoC “hot” and is a terror barrier for bilateral engagement. Despite Maldives President Abdulla Yameen appearing to address the downturn with India, there is no denying that relations between Male and New Delhi are at their lowest ebb. Maldives is reported to have prevented Indian envoy Akhilesh Mishra from meeting people from the opposition, while an FTA with China has added insult to injury. Maldives has denied putting any curbs on diplomats.
Their foreign minister Mohamed Asim took to Twitter to say, “Relations with India is time-tested and is based on people to people contact & cooperation in several sectors. We remain committed to further enhancing and strengthening existing ties.” The issue is not the curbs on Mishra or even a deeper relationship with China.
It is a deep distrust of India. How that is to be resolved is hard to say, but certainly New Delhi has no interest in propping up either the older Gayoom or Nasheed against Yameen. But that is not a message Yameen is hearing right now. Yameen is clearly sending a strong message to India, which may be partly to do with presidential elections in 2018. As of now, Yameen is virtually the only credible candidate for president, since most of the opposition are either in jail or out of the country.
India can draw comfort from its growing closeness with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan, all of which looked up in 2017, but only after India had expended a lot of energy and capital. India and Bangladesh have built arguably the most number of connectivity projects, almost unprecedented in south Asia. India has offered $5 billon in development and defence Inprojects only in 2017.
India even undertook a significant course correction on the Rohingya crisis in deference to Sheikh Hasina’s sensitivities. Balancing the relationship with Myanmar, India stepped in last week with a modest $25 million socio-economic development plan for Rakhine province to enable some of the Rohingyas to return, if Myanmar allows them back.
India thus is of use to both countries, without getting into mediation. Bhutan played a key role in the Doklam crisis, but it also brought to the fore India’s lax handling of issues that are crucial to Bhutan, not to speak of the fact that the younger generation of Bhutanese don’t feel as close to India anymore. This will require a lot more work by India, particularly in an election year.
(The Times of India)

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