Does South Asia Have a New Guard? – Foreign Policy

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: South Asia’s aging political leaders raise questions about the next generation, Pakistan introduces an austerity budget, and India and China mark two years since their deadly border clash in Ladakh.
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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: South Asia’s aging political leaders raise questions about the next generation, Pakistan introduces an austerity budget, and India and China mark two years since their deadly border clash in Ladakh.
If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.
As One Political Generation Fades, Who Will Take Their Place?
This week brought news that the health of two former South Asian leaders has taken a turn for the worse. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who ruled the country as a military dictator for nearly a decade in the 2000s, is hospitalized with a rare and incurable disease that causes organ damage. In Bangladesh, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who served two separate terms, had a heart attack.
That many South Asian leaders have reached old age speaks to the relative improvement in the region’s political stability, after decades when executions by coup or assassinations were not uncommon in some countries. Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have each recently experienced health issues. India lost one former prime minister in 2018, and Pakistan has lost two former leaders since 2020.
As the older generations pass the baton to younger political figures, questions naturally arise about what this next generation will look like—and how they will lead. Signs indicate that significant continuity with the past is still the most likely outcome. Although South Asia may build on a recent trend of new or anti-establishment leaders, many top political figures will come from the same long-standing parties, and the region’s dynasties will endure.
Two recent leaders, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, both portrayed themselves as populist alternatives to the political elite. Neither is the product of a dynasty, and each has enjoyed significant youth support, despite taking office in their 60s. (Modi is now 71 years old.) But their breaks from the past aren’t as sharp as they suggest. Khan’s cabinet featured officials with experience from older political parties or military governments, and Modi has embraced a policy of self-sufficiency that prevailed in the past.
Few new major political parties have emerged in South Asia in recent years. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, launched in 1996, is one of the newest. Those that emerged in the last decade, such as India’s Aam Aadmi Party, lack national clout. Dynastic parties—the Gandhis’ Congress in India, the Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League, Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party—have performed poorly in recent elections. But their finances and use of political patronage ensure they will endure as their younger scions take on party leadership roles.
Around the region, the status quo dies hard. Sri Lanka’s acute economic crisis has put the powerful Rajapaksa family on the defensive, but one of its members remains president, and a divided opposition has failed to present a strong alternative. Bangladesh’s Awami League, a party that predates independence, has controlled the country since 2009; it is led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, herself part of another dynasty.
Against this backdrop, getting an infusion of new blood into politics seems tough. South Asian countries have a large youth bulge and a median age of 28, but young people without wealth or family connections face barriers to enter politics. Additionally, surveys suggest many youth may not wish to pursue political careers in the first place. Polls show many young Indians are cynical about politics, view corruption as a major problem, and have “no interest at all” in politics.
Of course, there are young South Asians interested in careers in public service, and opportunities to get them there, such as the Youth Parliament Pakistan program, are increasing. But making politics a more attractive career requires major changes from within, beginning with reducing corruption. Political parties also must genuinely address youth concerns, such as job creation and vocational skills programs. Younger generations may be inspired if more officials running youth-focused ministries were young people—and not just young dynasts.
For now, South Asia’s politics will continue to be dominated by these old-guard families and parties even as populist alternatives emerge. Either way, these near-future leaders aren’t likely to reverse the region’s democratic backsliding.
What We’re Following
Unrest in India after anti-Muslim comments. In India, the fallout from offensive comments about the Prophet Mohammed by two ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders continued this week. Indian Muslims have staged protests across the country, some calling for the arrest of Nupur Sharma, a BJP spokesperson, who made incendiary remarks about the relationship between Mohammed and his youngest wife on TV. Her words, along with a tweet by the BJP’s top media staffer in New Delhi, caused outrage in the Muslim world. Both officials faced punishment.
The protests were largely peaceful, but some turned violent; two protesters have died, and more than 30 people have been wounded, including police. Officials have responded in heavy-handed fashion: Images of police beating protesters spread quickly on social media, and authorities demolished the homes of several Muslim activists in Uttar Pradesh state. Community leaders have called on their fellow Muslims to end the protests to avoid further violence.
Not for the first time, the silence of Modi’s government stands out. There have been no calls for calm or unity, much less expressions of concern about violence against India’s Muslim community. When Muslim countries condemned the remarks last week, New Delhi released statements asserting that they did not represent the government’s views. Indian officials have appeared more attentive to the concerns of Muslim governments abroad than to the plight of Indian Muslims.
Pakistan’s new budget. This week, Pakistan’s released its budget for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1; as expected, it emphasizes austerity. Key measures include raising taxes on the rich and on banks and privatizing government assets to boost revenue and limit spending. These efforts are critical for Pakistan to receive an aid package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Recent negotiations with the IMF weren’t successful, largely because Islamabad refused to remove a large fuel subsidy, although it was withdrawn after the talks ended.
Pakistan’s economic crisis has become the worst in South Asia, aside from Sri Lanka’s. Foreign reserves are below $10 billion, enough for barely six weeks of imports. The government, which took office in April, dawdled for weeks before moving forward on a recovery plan; the delay caused a stock market tumble. Pandemic-induced supply chain issues and Russia’s war in Ukraine have also hit Pakistan’s economy, resulting in rising food costs and power blackouts.
India, China mark two years since border clash. June 15 marked two years since a deadly clash between Indian and Chinese troops on the countries’ disputed border in the Ladakh region. Twenty Indian soldiers died; Beijing has never officially announced the Chinese death toll. (In February 2021, the official newspaper of the People’s Liberation Army identified four “martyrs” who died in the clash.) The violence plunged India-China relations to their lowest level in decades and intensified New Delhi’s resolve to partner with Washington and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—albeit in a security partnership, not an alliance.
This week in Foreign Policy, Sushant Singh argued that the clash has confused New Delhi’s relations with both Washington and Beijing. India has continued to pursue robust commercial cooperation with China, but two years on, the countries aren’t out of the woods. Despite more than a dozen rounds of military talks and some troop disengagements, each side still has about 60,000 troops along the border—meaning even a minor miscalculation risks another clash.
According to Indian officials, China continues to build infrastructure along the border. Visiting New Delhi last week, Charles A. Flynn, the commander of the U.S. Army in the Pacific, called this development “alarming.”
Under the Radar
Then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan made headlines in February for visiting Moscow just as Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. The trip was planned well in advance, and a main priority was to secure Russian technical and financial support for a gas pipeline intended to carry imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the port of Karachi to suppliers in Punjab province.
In recent years, Pakistan has increasingly relied on importing natural gas—the top fuel in its energy mix—because of diminishing domestic supplies. The energy security concerns that prompted Khan’s visit to Russia have grown in recent days. Bloomberg reports that as European Union countries have ramped up their own natural gas imports to avoid Russian products, the surge in demand has depleted supply, jacked up shipping costs, and left Pakistan with fewer and more expensive options.
To be sure, Pakistan’s energy woes, which have led to blackouts in recent days, can’t just be blamed on European gas importers. Better diversification of its energy mix would have eased its reliance on LNG. Its energy sector is also revenue-deprived, and shoddy infrastructure has led to losses in distribution and transmission. Still, with Pakistan so heavily reliant on natural gas imports, it is especially vulnerable to supply shocks caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Regional Voices
In the Daily Mirror, writer Ameen Izzadeen notes that the diplomatic tensions caused by BJP leaders’ insulting comments about Islam offer a teachable moment for Sri Lanka. “The Islamic nations’ protests … emphasize the caution Sri Lanka which wields no major clout in international diplomacy should exercise in preventing domestic issues from becoming a big foreign policy headache,” he writes.
Analyst Noorulain Naseem discusses in South Asian Voices how provincial politics contributed to former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ouster in April. She argues that the ability of the opposition to “leverage its provincial political capital” enabled the vote of confidence to be “pushed forward after four years of Center-provincial disharmony” under Khan’s party.
In the Daily Star, consultant Iqra L. Qamari writes that Bangladesh’s fixation with its impressive GDP growth blinds it to other major economic challenges. “Almost all sectors have gone mouldy due to inefficiency, corruption, or the culture of impunity,” she writes. “This serpentine web of issues needs to be addressed urgently … and yet, all we seem to care about is this totalitarian growth.”
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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