Each of the past two years, I’ve done a roundup of the developments and stories that mattered the most in South Asia. In 2014, India’s historic national election and the coming together of Afghanistan’s hard-won unity government topped my list. The year before, Indian women’s political activism, and Nawaz Sharif’s election in Pakistan’s first transfer of power from one civilian to another, were my top two picks. Looking back at those posts compared with the ten events I’ve selected for 2015, this year suggests a markedly less hopeful mood. The most chilling development has been the steady trickle of reports about the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its presence in the region, particularly in Afghanistan, border areas of Pakistan, and possibly in Bangladesh. Other developments in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Maldives present a mixed picture of both progress and setbacks. Here is my selection of 2015’s most consequential stories in South Asia:
- Security deteriorates in Afghanistan: In December 2014, President Barrack Obama ceremonially marked the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, as did the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The U.S. troop presence “transitioned” to a train and support role, with the intention of completing troop withdrawal by the end of 2016. But grim news from Afghanistan, including a resurgent Taliban and “little nests” of the Islamic State, led Obama to revise his plan in October. Afghanistan’s unity government remains dysfunctional and without a full cabinet; the Taliban stepped up attacks (despite the belated revelation this year that Mullah Omar had died some two years ago), and hopes for a secure and stable Afghanistan in the near term have dimmed. In a tragic sign of the country’s situation, by year’s end, Afghans had become the second largest population of migrants after Syrians seeking refuge in Europe.
- Modi juggernaut slows, narrative returns to earth: In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi continued to successfully project India overseas, but faced a changed narrative at home. The expectations that he would be able to usher in transformational “big bang” economic reform proved unrealistic as his government found itself stymied by uproar in parliament’s upper house. Modi government officials spoke of “creative incrementalism” as the cumulative effect of a series of smaller reforms and performance improvements instead. Politically, hopes for continued gains by the Bharatiya Janata Party in state-level elections were dashed when the populist Aam Aadmi Party won Delhi by a landslide in February, and a “grand alliance” of regional parties swept Bihar in November. In the second half of the year, Modi’s much-delayed response to a shocking murder of a Muslim man merely suspected of eating beef—among the most visible of a series of similar incidents—led to a significant and politically polarized public debate in India and abroad over whether the country was growing more intolerant.
- India’s economy fastest growing in the world, top foreign direct investment (FDI) destination: Even as expectations changed in India, and as political problems became more salient for the Modi government, the Indian economy chugged ahead to become the world’s fastest-growing major economy, growing at 7.4 percent in the third quarter of 2015, overtaking China. It also became the world’s top foreign direct investment destination, according to the Financial Times, as announced FDI commitments to India surged to $31 billion in the first half of 2015. Those figures more than double India’s FDI levels from the first half of 2014.
- China and Pakistan announce vast “economic corridor” project: In April, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan and announced a major investment package of some $46 billion. China has been Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” for decades, but the April announcement promised infrastructure developments of another order. The vision will link western China down to the Arabian Sea through a “China Pakistan Economic Corridor” that will require roads from Pakistan’s Gwadar deep water port all the way up through the Karakorum Highway linking Pakistan to China via hairpin turns carved into Himalayan mountainsides.
- Nepal suffers massive earthquake: On April 25 a massive quake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale shook Nepal. Its epicenter was forty-eight miles (seventy-seven kilometers) northwest of Kathmandu. Homes and ancient buildings crumbled; nearly nine thousand people were killed, 2.8 million displaced, and more than 600,000 homes were destroyed. Despite an outpouring of international support, delays in distributing aid with in the country led to criticism. Tourism, a mainstay of the Nepali economy, has not returned to its earlier levels. The passage of a new constitution—eight years in the making—led not to strengthening of democracy, but mass protests from Nepal’s Madhesis; a supply blockade at the India-Nepal border has further resulted in economic disruption. By the end of the year, concerns about Nepal’s economy had grown, even as the country had not yet managed to fully rebuild from the April tragedy.
- Bloggers and foreigners assassinated in Bangladesh: Bangladesh’s political problems worsened in 2015. During the first half of the year, an astonishingly gruesome series of murders made international headlines as small groups of machete-wielding terrorists targeted secular and/or atheist bloggers for assassination. By September and October foreigners became the targets, and later in October a bomb exploded during a Shia procession. Following the September and October attacks, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, but the Bangladeshi government has stated instead that the violence must be the work of domestic groups. Concerns about Bangladesh’s security have now become the headline.
- Sri Lankans unseat strongman Rajapaksa, elect “combined opposition” in surprise outcome: On January 9, Sri Lanka’s Maithripala Sirisena defeated ten-year incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was an upset by any measure. Sirisena previously served in the Rajapaksa cabinet, but defected along with more than twenty other members of parliament to form an opposition coalition only two months before the January polls. Rajapaksa conceded graciously. The results represent a victory for Sri Lankan democracy. Under Sirisena, Sri Lanka has also “rebalanced” its foreign relations, rebuilding its ties with India—badly frayed by 2014—as well as with the global human rights community. In a step unimaginable a year back, in September Colombo even cosponsored a consensus resolution in the UN Human Rights Council on accountability for rights violations in Sri Lanka during the war.
- India emerges as a leader in Paris climate negotiations, deal reached: India has been willing, in previous multilateral negotiations, to say “no” to deals, no matter the consequences for global consensus. The India that arrived in Paris for the Conference of Parties negotiation on climate showed up with a different plan, including a proactive proposal for a new international solar alliance, which Modi inaugurated with French President Francois Hollande. Over the more than two weeks of deliberations India was a voice for the developing countries, and pushed for its priorities, but focused on a deal. The outcome—a global climate agreement—provides a good indication of how India’s new ambition of being a “leading power, rather than just a balancing power” is already positioning it to shape outcomes.
- Raheel Sharif rises, Nawaz Sharif sinks in sadly predictable setback for Pakistani democracy: As the Wall Street Journal put it, “Powerful General Raheel Sharif Eclipses Pakistan’s Prime Minister.” Though General Sharif had been in place since 2013, it was not until this year that his profile appeared to shine brighter than the democratically-elected Nawaz Sharif. But Nawaz became hobbled domestically by street protests throughout 2014, and the military clipped his foreign policy efforts to build better ties with India. In 2015, Pakistan’s military once again rose in prominence as the institution that can “deliver,” and General Raheel Sharif became the subject of social media memes and “cult hero” tributes.
- Maldives court sentences former president to prison in Kafkaesque trial: In a continued setback to Maldives’ nascent democracy, former President Mohamed Nasheed remained in prison at the end of 2015, despite the high-profile efforts of his legal team led by Amal Clooney, who has single-handedly helped this case gain visibility it might not have enjoyed otherwise. In March, a Maldivian court sentenced Nasheed to thirteen years’ imprisonment on the charge of terrorism relating to his actions in office when he ordered the arrest of a judge. The trial itself was ridden with numerous irregularities. The UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion in favor of Nasheed in September.
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