It was a busy news year in South Asia, with events that will have far-reaching consequences for the region. Between India’s historic election, a hard-won unity government in Afghanistan, and ongoing political turmoil in Pakistan combined with shocking terrorist attacks, South Asia made the front pages around the world for many different reasons. Like last year, I’ve tried to sift through the year’s developments and assess which will have lasting effects on the countries in the region and beyond. Herewith my personal selection of 2014’s most consequential stories in South Asia:
- The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins single-party majority in India, Narendra Modi becomes prime minister: Every general election in India is the world’s largest, and the 2014 elections to India’s Lok Sabha (House of the People) broke previous records. More than 550 million citizens turned out to vote in a nine-phase election stretching across six weeks. Narendra Modi took campaigning to a new level, criss-crossing the country to campaign, even appearing as a hologram before crowds he could not reach in person to stump for economic growth and good governance. And the BJP triumphed, coming out of a decade in opposition to secure a single-party majority, a feat not seen in India in thirty years. Markets responded positively to the news of a clear political mandate, with the Bombay Stock Exchange index reaching a then-record high the day the results were announced. While Modi placed great emphasis on economic growth during the campaign, his government’s reform efforts once in office have been less dramatic than expected; observers are now looking to his first full-year budget, due in February.
- Following protracted disputes, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah agree on power-sharing unity government in Afghanistan: The 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan unfolded over a lengthy five months, with an April first round, a June runoff, and ongoing accusations of election tampering thereafter. Intensive U.S. diplomacy through September helped achieve a power-sharing agreement for a “unity government,” allowing the country to move forward at a delicate time with international forces in the process of drawing down—and questions about regional stability increasingly voiced.
- With major high-level visits, China further cements development, economic, and strategic ties with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka: 2014 was the year that the People’s Republic of China unveiled its Silk Route and Maritime Silk Route connectivity strategies for the larger Asia region, complete with maps and major bilateral visits with South Asian countries. India has long worried about Chinese “encirclement” through what some analysts have termed a “string of pearls” presence throughout South Asia; in 2014 senior official bilateral visits at the head of government/head of state level took place between China and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Bangladesh, plus a foreign minister-level visit to Nepal (a 2014 visit of Nepal’s prime minister to China for an expo did not involve a Beijing stop). Each of these visits resulted in substantial announcements of economic assistance especially focused on infrastructure development. China has become a major economic partner—in many cases the top trading partner and/or leading foreign investor—in much of South Asia. President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September began with economic optimism but quickly turned to tension after Chinese troops incurred across the undemarcated border with India.
- U.S. and NATO troops complete handover of security operations in Afghanistan, scaling back to supporting role: December 2014 marked the ceremonial end of NATO responsibility in Afghanistan, as well as the transition of U.S. troops to a “train and support” mission, with Afghan security forces now in the lead. The international troop presence will remain at around thirteen thousand in early 2015, with the drawdown to resume on its path to phasing down to a small assistance role by the end of 2016. At its peak in 2011, the international coalition troop presence in Afghanistan was 140,000. Many countries in the region fear that a rapid drawdown could result in regional instability, as in Iraq, if Taliban and other terrorist attacks increase.
- Pakistani civilian government squeezed between military and street mobs, another setback for democracy: Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, came to power in a 2013 election widely heralded as a triumph for Pakistani democracy: the first peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another. Yet a year later, Sharif found his government beset with problems—especially a months-long “sit-in” street protest led by Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf party that derailed the government from accomplishing anything for 126 days. Khan demanded that the democratically elected government step down as he claimed its victory was due to poll rigging. (Note: Khan called off his sit-in following the Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar in December.)
- Indian economy begins to pick up, regains “stable” rating, institutional investors return to India: During the last three years of India’s previous government, the country’s once-bright investment story lost its luster due to numerous corruption scandals and a more difficult investment environment. In 2012, Standard & Poor’s lowered its outlook on India to “negative.” Since India’s credit rating was already at BBB-, the lowest investment grade, a negative outlook put India at risk for downgrade to junk status. Prime Minister Modi, elected this year on a mandate for growth, made pitching for foreign investment among his top foreign policy priorities. Institutional investors came back quickly, pleased with the outlook for doing business, and India regained a “stable” outlook for its credit rating. Economic growth ticked up to 5.6 percent (from 5.0 percent in 2013), with both the IMF and World Bank forecasting growth over 6 percent in 2015. With a $2 trillion economy, India is the region’s economic engine.
- Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina reelected to five-year term in Bangladesh in low-turnout election: Following months of street violence and threats by the opposition party Bangladesh National Party (BNP) to boycott the national elections in Bangladesh should a caretaker government not oversee the process, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina went ahead with elections on January 5. Half the seats were uncontested, due to the BNP’s boycott, and the ruling Awami League was reelected handily amid violence that killed eighteen. Official figures put voter turnout at 40 percent, but press reports suggested lower turnout of some 20 to 30 percent.
- The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit convenes after three-year delay, passes important agreement on regional energy: The regional association covering the least-integrated region in the world, SAARC, has long been troubled by the difficult relationship between India and Pakistan, which has prevented the association from accomplishing anything significant in trade and interconnectivity. Making matters worse, the host country responsible for the summit in 2012—Nepal—failed to pull together a meeting in 2012 (and again in 2013) due to its own internal political troubles. That said, once the gathering convened in November 2014, it actually managed to result in an agreement on regional energy signed by all eight countries. Agreements on regional rail connectivity and motor vehicles, however, were not concluded when Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the sole hold out, declined to sign.
- Taliban attack school in Peshawar, more than 130 children murdered: On December 16, Taliban terrorists attacked children attending a military school in Peshawar. As Pakistan and the rest of the world came to learn of the horrors unleashed on innocent schoolchildren—and as the Pakistani Taliban came forward to claim responsibility for the attack, termed a “reprisal” for military attacks on the Taliban—the gravity of Pakistan’s uncontrolled terrorism problem began to sink in. A public debate has resumed within Pakistan about the country’s direction, and its relationship to the Taliban, while arrests of the December 16 perpetrators are underway. Nearly simultaneously, a Pakistani court granted bail to one of the Mumbai attack planners, a Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist, leading some leading experts to question whether the Peshawar attack would result in any change after all, or whether it would be business as usual, as usual.
- Sri Lankan president calls early election, surprise defection creates viable opposition candidate: Sri Lanka’s strongman president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has handily won election twice, and his current term runs through 2016. In November, he invoked a provision in the Sri Lankan constitution that allows for early elections, which could theoretically allow him to secure a mandate through to 2022. Yet in a surprise development, an opposition candidate emerged when Maithripala Sirisena defected from Rajapaksa’s own party (as well as his cabinet) to energize and lead an umbrella opposition coalition. Sirisena appears to be attracting more support, with additional members of parliament leaving Rajapaksa for Sirisena. Rajapaksa is embattled internationally, with successive UN Human Rights Council resolutions raising questions about his government’s responsibility for human rights and humanitarian law violations at the end of the country’s civil war in 2009. His increasingly centralized management of Sri Lanka has also raised questions domestically about authoritarianism. The election has been set for January 8, 2015.
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