Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

Introducing Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. The highlights this week: Bangladesh braces for elections on Sunday with an almost certain outcome, Pakistani election candidates face nomination rejections before the February vote, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech in Uttar Pradesh ahead of a controversial temple consecration. Click here to subscribe to South Asia Brief in your inbox every Wednesday. Up to five countries in South Asia are set to hold elections this year. The first—Bangladesh on Sunday—features the least uncertainty. With the main opposition boycotting the polls, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the ruling Awami League party are practically assured a fourth consecutive term. This result will be widely criticized by Hasina’s opponents at home and raise concerns among Western governments that the Awami League is eroding democracy, leading Bangladesh towards a de facto one-party state. However, in South Asia, where most governments view Hasina favorably, the reaction will be more positive. Over the years, the Awami League has cracked down on the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and dissent in general. Since opposition protests turned violent in October, these crackdowns have intensified, with many BNP leaders now imprisoned. The BNP promised to boycott the elections unless Hasina stepped down in favor of a caretaker government to oversee the vote. The opposition cites the 2018 election, widely seen as rigged, and the growing climate of oppression as evidence of an unfair playing field. The Awami League rejects the caretaker demand, as the Supreme Court declared the country’s caretaker clause illegal in 2011, leading to its abolition. The United States and the European Union have urged Bangladesh to hold free and fair elections. Washington has issued both incentives and consequences, calling on the main parties to engage in dialogue while imposing visa restrictions on those it accused of impeding credible elections. Despite international pressure, the opposition is sitting out the vote, and there are reports that the Awami League is attempting to ensure high turnout by using threats to withdraw government welfare benefits from non-voters. Many Western countries value their trade ties with Bangladesh, given its powerful garment industry, and view it as strategically significant in the Indo-Pacific. But they cannot dismiss potential post-election punitive measures, including trade sanctions. Regardless, Hasina’s return will be viewed more positively in South Asia. She enjoys strong support from India, which characterizes the opposition as a potentially destabilizing threat that could lead to the resurgence of Islamism in Bangladesh. Hasina’s close ties with India may escalate anti-India sentiment among the public. But, prospects for trade and connectivity cooperation could diminish if Hasina struggles to address looming economic challenges, such as rising inflation and long-term issues from an overreliance on garment exports. Pakistani candidates denied nominations. Pakistan’s elections are scheduled for February 8, with a few similar themes to those in Bangladesh, especially top political challengers confronting formidable electoral roadblocks. The latest obstacle for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, arguably the country’s most popular, is getting its candidates’ election nomination papers accepted. Over 3,000 nomination documents were recently rejected by the election commission, and most of the people filing them planned to run on the PTI ticket. Many PTI leaders still technically able to run for office said their nominations were denied, and PTI leader Imran Khan, who has been jailed since August, was rejected as well. Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party and a strong candidate to lead the next government, had his nomination papers accepted, only to have a lawyer file an appeal challenging their acceptance. This was expected: After Sharif’s conviction on corruption charges in 2018, the Supreme Court disqualified him from public office for life. Last year, the government—led by Sharif’s younger brother—passed legislation stipulating that disqualifications can only last for five years, shortly before handing over power to a caretaker government. Modi prepares for temple inauguration. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the city of Ayodhya on Saturday. He inaugurated new infrastructure projects, including an airport and a railway station. He also spoke of the upcoming consecration of the Ram Mandir temple, advising people to stay away from the city that day due to huge crowds and calling on Indians to mark the occasion in other ways. The temple, currently under construction, is a deeply controversial project. It is being built on land where a mosque stood for nearly 500 years until Hindu extremists destroyed it in 1992. Many Hindus claim the mosque was erected on the grounds of a Hindu temple destroyed during the Mughal Empire, which marked the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. The consecration of the Ram Mandir temple intends to fulfill a long-standing pledge of Modi’s. The Saturday visit was classic Modi: He combined themes around welfare and development with an unyielding focus on Hindu nationalism. His appearance in Ayodhya—located in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state—showcased the tactics he will bank on to propel him to a third straight term as prime minister when India holds national elections in April and May. Qatar commutes death sentences of Indian ex-officers. Last week, India announced that Qatar’s Court of Appeal commuted the death sentences of eight former Indian naval officers jailed since 2022. The officers were in the country to train Qatari naval staff, according to the head of an Indian veterans group. They were reportedly charged with spying for Israel. Neither the Indian nor the Qatari government has said much publicly about the case. India has expressed support for Israel since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks; Qatar hosts many top Hamas leaders. The reduced sentences mean the former officers could be sent back to India to serve out their time, thanks to a prisoner transfer treaty the two countries signed in 2014. However, last week an External Affairs Ministry spokesperson said he wasn’t sure if the prisoner treaty is still in effect, adding that the government is in touch with lawyers to discuss next steps. As Chinese naval power projection has increased in the Indian Ocean region in recent years, fears have grown in India and the United States about the presence of Chinese vessels off the littoral states of South Asia. This concern extends to ostensibly non-military maritime activities because of fears that they could mask intelligence functions. In 2019, the Indian government established the Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region to better deal with these threats, in collaboration with several partner states. But China’s aggressive maritime behavior has created ripple effects—quite literally in some cases—throughout the region, underlining the strategic stakes for international naval powers in South Asia.

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