Welcome to the South Asia Foreign Policy Letter. Today: Modi's coalition wins an important state election in India, Attacks on journalists Increase in Afghanistan, Pakistan gets caught up in a Twitter kerfuffle with the US Embassy, and India enters technical recession.
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Modi's coronavirus referendum
With coronavirus still prevalent in much of the world, 2020 is not a good year for established companies to face the electorate. In a highly competitive election in Bihar, India's third largest state, a coalition that included Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) returned to power on Wednesday, surprising pollsters and analysts.
Unlikely result? Bihar residents had several reasons to vote against the BJP and its local ally, incumbent Prime Minister Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) party. Bihar is one of the poorest countries in India with a weak health system and was badly hit by the pandemic. Almost a third of young people in Bihar were unemployed in the past year – a rate almost twice the national average.
When India announced a sudden lockdown in March, migrant workers in major cities rushed back to their homes in places like Bihar, increasing pressure on state resources. Perhaps polls indicated that the 31-year-old opposition leader Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, the son of incarcerated former Prime Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, won a great victory.
Modi's mandate. Polls seem to have underestimated Modi's continued popularity. State elections in India are increasingly viewed as referendums on national parties and leaders. With that in mind, the vote was Modi's first major test since the pandemic began. With more than 41 million votes cast, the result could be a thumbs up for Modi's continued authority – despite the fact that India has the second most common coronavirus cases in the world and economic activity has declined dramatically in 2020.
The Bihar result underscores that pollsters around the world are struggling to reflect voter sentiment, especially in rural areas. This also suggests that analysts still underestimate the stickiness of executives who are considered strong men.
Comparisons between Modi and other world leaders are often revised. But with Trump's appearance last week, one could conclude that voters are not judging leaders as harshly for the coronavirus as expected, perhaps because the pandemic is viewed as a natural disaster rather than worsened by human choices.
Afghan journalists targeted. A radio journalist was killed in a targeted bomb explosion in the Afghan province of Helmand on Thursday. Elyas Dayee worked for Radio Free Afghanistan. The attack follows another local journalist, Yama Siawash, who was killed in Kabul last week. In both attacks, bombs were placed on journalists' vehicles.
Patricia Gossman of Human Rights Watch tweeted that the bombing was "part of an alarming pattern of increasing threats and attacks by the Taliban on the media."
Twitter incident between the US and Pakistan. On Tuesday, a Pakistani opposition leader shared a headline in the Washington Post calling Trump's defeat a "blow to the world's demagogues and dictators" and saying, "We have one in Pakistan too." The tweet, a reference to Prime Minister Imran Khan, was then retweeted by the U.S. embassy on Islamabad's official account.
Within a few hours, #ApologiseUSembassy began to set trends in Pakistan. By Wednesday, the embassy had done just that, saying that their account was "accessed without authorization last night … We apologize for any confusion."
Pakistan cricket landmark. Alia Zafar, a human resources manager, became the first woman to be appointed independent director of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), the national agency that organizes the country's most popular sport. In Tuesday's announcement, PCB Chairman Ehsan Mani described Zafar's appointment as "a major step forward in improving the governance structure of the PCB."
Coronavirus update. The onset of winter raises fears of a surge in coronavirus cases across South Asia. In Bangladesh, the government has extended the closure of all educational institutions until December 19. Nepal has announced that it will be running free coronavirus tests to encourage people to get tested. And in India, there are increasing reports of running out of beds in hospitals in cities like New Delhi, which are also struggling with dangerous air quality and an increase in lung health complaints.
As shown above, there are now nearly 10 million coronavirus cases in South Asia. The real number is likely orders of magnitude higher when testing rates are generally low.
Indian recession. New data from India's central bank shows that the country has likely entered its first recession, the technical term for two consecutive quarters of declining economic activity. According to Bloomberg, an estimate by the Reserve Bank of India is that gross domestic product fell 8.6 percent in the quarter that ended in September. The economy shrank by 24 percent in the previous quarter.
In an interview with BBC's Soutik Biswas, economist and former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India needed to borrow its way out of its current crisis. If it can "save lives, push boundaries, restore livelihoods and stimulate economic growth, then it's worth it," said Singh.
Censorship or Regulation? The Indian government has enacted a digital media regulation regulation that puts online news portals, streaming video services and social media under the supervision of the country's information and broadcasting ministry. The move raises fears that the government could expand its powers and potentially censor content it considers a threat.
I enjoyed reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's review of former US President Barack Obama's new book, A Promised Land. Adichie is sometimes tough on Obama: “In this book, Barack Obama often makes an Obama. He is a self-observing man, oddly puritanical in his skepticism, turning to see every corner and possibly dissatisfied with everyone, and genetically incapable of being an ideologue, "she writes.
Adichie picks a few selected quotes from Obama's impressions of various world leaders. It is worth highlighting Obama's stance on Rahul Gandhi, the former leader of India's National Congress Party and scion of a long line of prime ministers. Gandhi has "a nervous, unformed quality about himself, like a student who finished the coursework and wanted to impress the teacher, but deep down he lacked either the skill or the passion to master the subject," writes Adichie. Ouch.
That's it for this week.
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