South Asia Summary: August 6-10, 2021

Let’s begin with a look at how Indian Prime Minister Modi’s Act East Policy–which seeks to integrate India, especially Northeast India, and ASEAN–is faring.

A columnist in Bangladesh’s The Independent reports on West Bengali chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s national ambitions. After having defeated the BJP in her home state, Banerjee wants to seize on the alleged Pegasus spying scandal and present an opposition “front against the BJP in each state” come the Lok Sabha (national parliamentary) elections in 2024.

Khela [hobe] will happen in all states until BJP is removed from the country”, The Independent says, but a writer on News18 questions the implication of Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress Bengali election slogan (which could be translated as “game on”). He says West Bengal no longer leads India, that West Bengal is falling behind its neighboring states, and that the slogan is a call to political violence, a sentiment largely echoed in Firstpost.

Meanwhile, Northeast India is trying to sort out the aftermath of the deadly border battle between the states of Assam (led by BJP hardliner and chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma) and (the predominantly Christian) Mizoram, which Sarma just suggested may be related to beef-smuggling in Mizoram. Muhammad Mahmood in Bangladesh’s Financial Express connects this battle with the larger question of US-India-China relations. Neither the US nor India are the democratic champions they purport to be, and neither has the financial wherewithal to go to war with China. The US is caught up in anti-China “hysteria” while India is flummoxed by the fate of Afghanistan.

Sanjoy Hazarika argues in The Indian Express that the “visionary” Act East Policy cannot be based on infrastructure alone but also on peace and trust.

OpIndia reports on a claim by Abhijit Iyer Mitra that “there will be an irreversible decline leading to the ‘end of Hinduism’” within a century’s time. Hindu India was damaged by the 1947 Partition and has been further damaged by a secular constitution that allows only minority communities (notably, Christians and Muslims) to run their own schools and religions institutions. Moreover, while Hinduism, like similar pre-Abrahamic religions in ancient Europe and the Middle East, seeks to find common ground with other religions, Abrahamic religions seek “exclusive ground” ideologically and territorially.

A piece in ThePrint suggests carving up the massive, BJP-led state of Uttar Pradesh both to rejuvenate the economy and break the grip of Hindutva ideology in the Indian heartland.

Staying with the theme of Hindutva, The Quint has a piece about Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena and its relationship with Congress, suggesting that Shiv Sena is somewhat more opportunistic, less ideologically committed to Hindutva, and more grounded in Marathi culture than is often acknowledged.

Multiple pieces discuss the recent agreement between China and India to disengage at Gogra in the Himalayas and agree that although this is an encouraging small step, it is elsewhere in Ladakh that the real test comes. “Beijing has appeared unwilling to discuss the strategically significant Depsang Plains, where the Chinese side has been blocking Indian patrols”, says The Hindu. The current buffer zones cannot become permanent, it goes on.

Tara Kartha in ThePrint warns that Beijing may be abandoning its doctrine of minimal deterrence in order to join the rest of the world in a nuclear arm’s race and position itself more aggressively with respect to Taiwan. Although expansion in China’s nuclear arsenal is unlikely to directly threaten India, which is already well within range of Chinese missiles, it points to a global sea change in the nuclear threat which could impact India over the long run. Russia, however, might distance itself from China because of this.

Speaking of Russia, a piece in The Indian Express points to a possible Indo-Arctic alliance that could complement both Vladimir Putin’s continental Greater Eurasian Partnership and India’s Indo-Pacific strategy, each viewed as mechanisms for checking Chinese expansion.

With India’s ally in Kabul under pressure and Pakistan gaining the diplomatic advantage in Afghanistan and Central Asia, India is turning to the Persian Gulf for a way back into the region. “Integration of the Gulf into India’s regional security calculus [is]…now likely to be a permanent feature”, says C Raja Mohan in The Indian Express. Aditi Badhuri argues in The Quint that Iran’s and India’s shared interests in avoiding an extremist Sunni regime in Afghanistan are bringing them closer together despite their increasingly close relationships with China and the US (as well as other Iranian enemies in the Middle East), respectively. This relationship is critical to India, because Iran is India’s sole route into Central Asia.

Pakistan’s The Express Tribune blames India for a deadly attack in Quetta claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). “If India doesn’t back down, we need to push harder to get the world to punish them.” The Nation says it must fight back “diplomatically” and that the country is only second to Afghanistan in being a victim of terror.

Some Pakistani writers see great opportunities for their country to expand into Central Asia with the rise of the Taliban. One writer for The Express Tribune sees the combination of a Taliban takeover and an expansion of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) opening up all of Central Asia. Moreover, the US will likely get bogged down in India’s “babu way of work” (i.e., bureaucratic lethargy). Another writer for the same publication sees the New Quad of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the US as a peaceful counter to the confrontational Indo-Pacific Quad as it makes possible the realization of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Vision of Central Asia. With Chinese investment in the form of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and CPEC opening up Afghanistan, this will lure US investment into the region and make Pakistan less dependent on China. China, the US, and Russia will be able to cooperate in Central Asia. India need not be threatened by this project, if it abandons zero-sum thinking, even as the same project “bolsters Pakistan’s strategic leverage over India” and “swings the pendulum in Pakistan’s favor”.

Not everybody is so upbeat about Pakistan’s prospects, however. A writer at the Pakistan Observer worries about Pakistan being encircled, as it gets blamed for the rise of the Taliban and the Indo-Pacific Quad puts pressure on the region to turn on China. He worries that the Taliban could close the circle by normalizing ties with India.

A number of these pessimistic takes on events in Afghanistan stress Pakistan’s helplessness in the rise of the Taliban. The Dawn writes that Pakistan has limited leverage over the Taliban, and that 7000 non-local Islamist fighters are based in Afghanistan. Kamran Yousaf in The Express Tribune says that Pakistani requests to the Taliban to rein in Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) met with a “lukewarm response”. Muhammad Amir Rana, also writing in Dawn, says that the Taliban is already transforming the ideological topography of the region. The TTP, for example, has declared it no longer aims to absorb Pakistan into a caliphate but rather to seek independence for Pakistan’s tribal territories. Non-tribal TTP fighters might join IS or al Qaeda in response. The Nation says that Pakistan should not cave into demands by the Taliban to open the border at the vital Spin Boldak crossing. At Bangladesh’s Daily Asian, Matiar Chowdhury doesn’t think the Taliban will be able to hold back the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from targeting Xinjiang or CPEC installations, despite the Taliban’s assurance of “non-interference” in Chinese affairs.

Lots of Pakistani observers heaped scorn on the US, saying it both made a mess of the region, weakened itself, and strengthened China in its misadventure in Afghanistan. The US “used Pakistan…like toilet paper” said one writer at The Express Tribune and it cost the US $2.66 trillion for the privilege.

Finally, we turn to Nepal. Prime Minister Deuba has released the Common Minimum Program (CMP) of his new government around which his coalition will rally. The Himalayan Times said the CMP resolves to ‘talk about resolving’ the Kalipani Dispute (where Nepal claims a slice of territory long held by India), strengthen border posts, investigate the previous, Oli-led government’s procurement of COVID-related equipment, amend the Constitution in unspecified ways, and publish a report about the crackdown on Madhesi protests five years ago. These last two measures appear to be in deference to the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP), which frequently champions particular Madhesi causes, but there was no mention made of further devolution, another JSP demand. As PM Deuba is still unable to expand his cabinet, The Himalayan Times express skepticism that the government will have an easy go of it.

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