Over 10 days after the Lok Sabha elections began, only the third phase out of seven is under way. Why the Election Commission devised this tedious process, whereby polling in some larger states like Uttar Pradesh has also been salami-sliced into a corresponding seven phases, is foxing? If elections to Tamil Nadu’s 38 seats could be held in just one day, why not in two or three phases in UP or West Bengal? Indonesia this month, with 190 million voters versus 900 million in India, had a one-day paper ballot poll to five different institutions, ranging from presidential to local. The prolonged elections increase electoral toxicity and put the nation on tenterhooks for well over a month.
More significantly, the nation’s foreign and national security policy is put on the backburner in the interregnum. Multiple events are occurring or expected to take place in this period. Pakistan made two significant Cabinet changes. Much-praised finance minister Asad Umar resigned when offered a less important portfolio. Prime Minister Imran Khan has inducted high-profile ministers in his office to oversee the economy as Pakistan’s 13th IMF bailout still remains unresolved. Additionally, Idaz Shah, a protégé of former President Pervez Musharraf and whom Benazir Bhutto named as a threat to her life before her assassination, becomes the new interior minister. This signals the Pakistan Army’s firmer and more direct control over internal security.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Imran Khan first speculated that Pakistan was on the verge of finding a major oil/gas field in the Arabian Sea, where a consortium led by ExxonMobil is prospecting. This, if achieved, could make Pakistan economically prosperous and boost its military’s arms acquisitions. An altered conventional military balance between India and Pakistan could either help with the dialogue, if Pakistan chooses economic prosperity over rivalry, or worsen the South Asian standoff as historically the Pakistani military has been risk-prone in attempting to alter the status quo over Kashmir. Then, turning to India, Mr Khan surprisingly said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election in India would be helpful for settling India-Pakistan disputes. This embarrassed the BJP, relying solely on a national security narrative in its campaigning and painting the Opposition as Pakistan-friendly. Imran Khan thus shrewdly got Pakistan out of the Indian electoral battle, realising he will have to deal with whoever is the next Prime Minister.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban began a spring offensive despite simultaneously holding talks with the US special envoy, ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. However, the latest round in Doha hit a wall as the Taliban objected to the Afghan delegation’s size, though the real problem was the inclusion, for the first time, of elements from the Afghan government, with which Taliban refuse to engage. The US seeks a package deal with a truce by the Taliban as a pre-condition to other elements like a US troop withdrawal being announced. The Taliban seek a step-by-step approach, getting desired concessions first like a withdrawal date and prisoner release. India is marginal to the process, having to rely on US commitments, as is the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani. A senior US state department official is in India this week to discuss bilateral and regional issues, and will hopefully brief South Blockon Afghanistan. Of course, the US priority will be to discuss trade, defence equipment sales and the Iran sanctions.
No doubt it will also try making sense of the current election scenario. In Abu Dhabi, the foundation stone was laid of what is said to be the first Hindu temple on April 20. Normally Prime Minister Modi would have loved to go, both for this and to receive the award conveniently conferred by the Nahyan ruling family in the middle of the Indian election. Domestic audiences would have lapped up his success in planting a saffron flag in Arabian sands. Except that in 2001, when I was ambassador in Abu Dhabi, late UAE President Sheikh Zayed had allotted a huge plot in Musaffah, Abu Dhabi, for a cremation ground in which a temple to conduct the last rites was approved. Thus, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed is simply taking this legacy a step further. Did the UAE belatedly realise it had interfered enough in India’s domestic politics and used the approaching Ramzan as an excuse to not host Mr Modi?
Ties with Russia and China also demand attention. Russian President Vladimir Putin, still under the shadow of interference in the US presidential election, also conferred Russia’s highest award on Mr Modi while the Lok Sabha polls are under way. Indo-Russian relations have oscillated between functionally cordial and occasionally suspicious as Mr Putin would perceive India in the US’ strategic embrace, and having diminished dependence on Russian weapons. Some urgent orders have now been placed for air defence missiles, rockets and anti-tank ammunition. Similarly, Sino-Indian relations hit a bump despite the Wuhan understanding as China stood by its ally Pakistan to yet again block Masood Azhar’s listing by the 1267 UNSC committee. Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale was in Beijing to meet foreign minister Wang Yi five days before China’s Belt and Road Initiative conclave begins on April 25. Around 37 heads of state and 150 nations are expected. China wants India to relent but India, like the US, is holding back. W
ith sovereignty questions involved, it’s unlikely India will compromise given the politically-surcharged atmosphere back home even if China was to relent on the listing of terrorists.
The next Indian government will have its hands full. There is the unsettled Afghan peace process. An assertive China is gaining support in Asia for its BRI and even Huawei’s 5G rollout. Despite US warnings, Huawei’s technology has been accepted by Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. It could affect future US military cooperation because of interoperability issues with US military equipment.
On the positive side, Mr Modi has taken past openings with the Gulf, Japan, Israel and the US and expanded trusts level with personalised diplomacy. However, others like Iran and now Russia and China would see India as excessively US-dependent. The next government’s challenge would be to rebalance relations with both camps. US statesman Zbignew Brzezinski said before he died that the US should not let Russia and China converge to challenge it. India has a similar challenge with Pakistan and China. By opting for Pakistan-baiting in the Indian elections, the BJP has complicated regional equations that Mr Modi or his successor will need to untangle. It’s not a great passing of the diplomatic baton....