The neighbourhood’s concerns: The China factor and the South Asian eye on India polls

A look at what the media and commentators in South Asia are saying about the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

WrittenBy:Sumaiya Ali
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Five countries in South Asia are electing new governments this year. Among them is India, which has been competing with China for a larger share of influence in the region. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government have repeatedly asserted that India is on its path to emerge as the vishwaguru in South Asia. But in the immediate neighbourhood, an intricate tapestry of bilateral interests and power equations have continued to define the Indian relationship with other Asian countries. Chinese influence looms large, and critics of the Modi government have tried to attribute a part of it to Modi’s policies, even for the ‘India Out’ campaigns in Maldives or in Bangladesh.

While the Lok Sabha poll campaign has been underway, there have been apprehensions in Pakistan, speculation in Sri Lanka, and assumptions in Bangladesh about the role the new government will play in ties with the neighbouring countries.

A look at what the media in South Asia has spoken about amid the Indian elections.

Pakistan’s pulse

The BJP has often tried to accuse the Indian political opposition of being hand in glove with Pakistan. It claims it’s the only party that cares about protecting India against its rivals.

Modi, in an interview, boasted that he is the “root cause of worries among people in Pakistan”. His party colleague and UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath went a step further and declared at a rally that Pakistan-occupied Kashmir will be taken out within six months if the BJP is elected to power for a third time.

Pakistani media and commentators took notes.

Maleeha Lodhi, a columnist for Dawn, wrote that if Modi returns to power, the outlook for both the countries would be a troubled one.

“Some may dismiss Modi’s Pakistan-bashing as election politics, but words have consequences. Moreover, anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim themes are a part of his and the BJP’s deeply held beliefs,” Lodhi wrote. 

A few days later, Modi took a jibe at the Congress’s handling of the 1971 Indo-Pak war, and claimed that “had Modi been there at that time, I would have taken Kartarpur Sahib from them (made it part of Indian territory) and then freed their troops”.

Before that speech, Dr Talat Wizarat, a professor at University of Karachi, told Express Tribune that “the brazenness makes it evident that Modi has amassed significant power domestically, and his predominantly Hindu nationalist base approves of his tactics against Muslims”.

“However, the potential cost of this victory would be substantial for India. Such an outcome will compromise the nation’s commitment to inclusivity, erode institutional integrity, and weaken the foundations of its proclaimed secularism. These developments could leave a lasting impact on the sociopolitical landscape of India, challenging the ideals it has long aspired to uphold,” noted a piece in The News.

ARY News noted that “there are growing complaints about a shrinking space for dissent and free media as the BJP government has not hesitated to coerce internationally acclaimed media institutions such as BBC.”

Bangladesh bond

Bangladesh has been a strategic ally to India, which is its second largest trade partner in Asia.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who shares a cordial relationship with PM Modi, and under whose watch bilateral ties have improved with India, was re-elected this year amid allegations of violence and intimidation. The major opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party, had boycotted this election, and there had been accusations that India had added fuel to the fire.

Pinaki Bhattacharya, an exiled Bangladeshi who promoted the campaign extensively, earlier told VOA that it is “widely believed” that the authorities in Bangladesh managed to conduct “the farcical election after India covertly and overtly sided with the ruling party”.

If “Modi returns, as the present trends indicate, it will also ensure continuity in the Modi-Hasina legacy to strengthen the Delhi-Dhaka partnership”, noted prominent portal Daily Star, while calling the country’s dependence on India for strategic goods and electricity as “dangerous”, in a piece last year.

An opinion piece in Prothomalo claimed that “experts are showing how rigging is possible by EVM”. “This suspicion is so strong that there is even a case filed regarding EVM and the matter is undergoing hearing in the Supreme Court at present. From the arguments in court, it is evident that the judges are strongly against leaving the EVM and returning to the ballot. Yet they also say that there is scope to interfere in a voting machine like the EVM.”

Colombo at the crossroads

Sri Lanka, which is battling an economic crisis, sees India as a reliable partner. Lankan Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena had earlier said that India is its biggest friend in times of crisis.

But Prime Minister Modi renewed an old controversy in March when he shared an article on Katchatheevu Island, and blamed the Congress for giving it to Sri Lanka. The Katchatheevu Island was given to Sri Lanka by India during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government in 1974. The social media post opened a Pandora's box, and the Sri Lankan media was quick to chime in.

Ceylon Today noted that this is BJP’s attempt to weasel its way in Tamil Nadu amid the elections. “As far as we are concerned, it is a deal done and dusted.”

India and Sri Lanka share economic interests and initiatives. The island nation recently announced that it will assign the management of two of its airports to India, but some in Sri Lanka saw this as greater Indian control.

The Island noted, “Giving their management over to Indian organisations is tantamount to putting the proverbial snake inside one’s sarong and complaining that it is stinging.” It said the “proposed Indian involvement” is a sad state of affairs when the country in itself has retired aviation experts from all over the world.

For years, India and China have competed for influence in Sri Lanka. The Ranil Wickramasinghe government has repeatedly emphasised that he is neither pro-India nor pro-China.

In October 2023, China docked its research vessel in Lanka’s Hambantota’s port, but India was quick to raise its objection. As a result, Sri Lanka banned Chinese research vessels in its Exclusive Economic Zone.

Navigating Nepal

India and Nepal enjoy a unique relationship. The two countries have a majority Hindu population which gives them a common socio-religious platform to connect. 

The Nepalese media covers India’s developmental efforts in the region but there have been fissures, considering that a pro-China government is in power in the neighbouring country.

Some say the BJP-led administration has a special corner for Nepal, but there have been signs the party is dissatisfied with Nepal’s transformation from a Hindu country to a secular state run by a communist government. Cracks appeared recently when Nepal announced the launch of a new currency note with its updated map, including areas of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura.

The inauguration of the Ram temple by PM Modi also triggered discomfort in certain sections.

Kathmandu Post, in a piece on the Ram temple, noted that “there is just one person hogging the limelight more than Lord Ram himself, and that is Narendra Damodardas Modi”.

A report in Rising Nepal noted that as the BJP under PM Modi pursues a third term, Nepal will “see no drastic changes in India’s policy towards them”.

Meanwhile, a report in Nepali Times noted that slogans at a BJP rally in Bihar felt like a personality cult. “Female participants of the rally had nowhere but to go behind tin sheds and bushes to relieve themselves. This is ironic given that when Modi came in power in 2014, his election campaigns prioritised building ‘Suchalaya’ (public toilets) before ‘Dewalaya’ (temples).”

Maldives puzzle

The current Maldivian government led by President Mohammed Muizzu is said to be “pro-China”. After a diplomatic quagmire with India, the government later signed a military pact with China. The details of the agreement were not announced, but it seemed to be a message for India.

However, after a domestic backlash, Muizzu has tried to maintain a balance in diplomacy and recently, in an interview to Mihaaru, urged PM Modi to consider providing debt-relief to the nation. The two countries signed a new Free Trade Agreement on May 25.

Chinese concerns

Both India and China are battling for prominence in the Asian region, as tensions between the two economic giants continue since frictions over boundary disputes near Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

After Modi’s remarks about addressing the prolonged situation, Chinese media called it a “gesture of goodwill”.

“It will serve both countries' interests best if China and India can properly manage and control the border issue, and work together to bring their relations onto the track of steady and sound development,” an editorial in China Daily noted.

Chinese media giant CGTN opined that Modi will come to power only because of Hindu nationalism and a lack of opposition in the country. An opinion piece in the South China Morning Post noted that a third term for Modi will mean the “death of Indian democracy”

The author is a media researcher.

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