A spate of elections: This is South Asia’s make or break year
Most global media and many influential capital cities are not paying much attention to the South Asian region in a news cycle dominated by the never-ending US-China political and economic conflicts and the bruising Russia-Ukraine military war.
And yet, it is election season in South Asia – at least four of the eight countries here will vote to elect new national governments in the next several months. The outcomes of polls in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka will determine not only the future of this troubled but promising region, but also have major economic and political repercussions in the world.
Every fourth human lives in South Asia and its member states account for an accumulative GDP of over $3 trillion, placing it in the top three fastest regional growths in a world throttled by economic downturn, and among the top five destinations for foreign investment. This is mainly driven by Indian and Bangladeshi entrepreneurism but these two countries along with Pakistan alone constitute for a middle-class consumer market of nearly 400 million – making it a hotbed of global consumables. Sri Lanka and India put together export more tea than the rest of the top ten global exporters.
The region is not shy of ambition and connectivity – India has literally landed on the moon and is headed for the sun. Incredibly enough it was an Afghan who has the honor of being the first South Asian in space, and Pakistan only the second country after China in the whole of Asia to launch a space program. There are as many Internet users in South Asia – 700 million – as in the rest of Asia combined – and certainly more than those in Europe, Africa or the Americas. The region elected more women heads of government in the 20th century, and earlier, than in other global regions.
A prosperous collective future starts with a political connection — a prosperity that is equal and sustainable for South Asia will follow. As will have a positive influence on the rest of Asia, the Gulf and beyond.
And yet trouble brews in this would-be paradise. The region, in all its constituent member states, has in recent years grown more socially conservative with religion a key marker of politics, more authoritarian in politics with democratic backslide, more intolerant of dissent manifesting in violence, and more belligerent with neighbors.
It doesn’t help that the regional military heavyweights – India and Pakistan – are nuclear and not on talking terms. In recent years they don’t even have ambassadors in each other’s capitals. Both have waged proxy and overt wars with dramatic hot pursuits in each other’s skies in meaningless bullying. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have flirted with economic defaults and Nepal and Maldives with political dysfunction.
This accumulatively not only prevents the region from fulfilling its economic and political potential, but also opens space in the region for destabilizing proxy strategic wars between outsiders such as China and the US. Every day South Asia spends in general acrimony and indifference translates into lost economic muscle and political influence over the rest of the world.
All this can change if the upcoming elections in four countries that govern the political fate of one fourth of humanity go right. The elections – expected to range from throwing up new leaderships or electing the stifling status quo – will determine if the region can stop its backslide in recent years into collective failure preventing unprecedented socio-economic development. If the potential is unleashed, it can trigger a turnaround of even the global economy.
But this cannot happen without focused economic integration of the region underpinned by collaborative political confluence. Intra-regional tourism and trade alone will double regional GDP in five years – the span for which new governments in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka will be elected. The new governments will have to agree to stop being dictated by unproductive past divisions and a self-prophesized inability to collaborate.
To break the overhang of current governmental impulses to stick to regional political status quos, the political parties of the region must establish a regional political caucus. Political parties embody human connection and people’s aspirations while governments are unfeeling entities. Friendships and mutual socio-economic confluence are too important to leave to the devices of state establishments alone. The people of the region through their political parties must lead the way.
A prosperous collective future starts with a political connection. The heads of key political parties, especially those that have ruled their countries in the region in this century, must form a union and meet every year to inject a people-driven engagement and collaboration agenda changing the current regional focus from division to collusion. A prosperity that is mutual, equal and sustainable for all countries of South Asia will follow. As will a positive socio-political and economic influence on the rest of Asia, the Gulf and beyond. The year 2024 will definitely be a make or break year for South Asia.
- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.