The State of South Asia in 2023
2023 has been an eventful year for South Asia. Many leaders in the region were gearing up for elections this year or next, leading to a flurry of campaigns and electoral activities. Amidst these political developments, the region continued to face challenges ranging from economic and political instability to humanitarian crises.
A standout development has been India’s ascent as a major global power. From becoming the first country to land a spacecraft near the moon’s south pole under its Chandrayaan-3 mission and its recently concluded presidency of the G-20 to its growing economic, political and even technological partnership with the United States, India’s growing stature on the world stage was increasingly apparent during the year.
On the economic front, South Asian countries have followed divergent economic paths — emblematic of the fact that the region remains one of the world’s least integrated. India, for example, exhibited impressive growth, with its GDP increasing by 7 percent. In contrast, neighboring Pakistan, still reeling from the economic devastation caused by severe flooding in 2022 has sought assistance from the IMF and attempted to restructure its debt with bilateral creditors.
In Sri Lanka, President Ranil Wickremesinghe reintroduced a degree of normalcy following the country’s debt default and a severe economic crisis in 2022 that led to the displacement of the Rajapaksa brothers from power. Nevertheless, this stabilization required the implementation of several difficult structural economic reforms, which were prerequisites for obtaining vital IMF bailouts.
Nepal faced economic hardships, entering its first recession in over six decades. Public discontent over the country’s growing economic woes was exacerbated by the exposure of major corruption scandals, including a case where high-ranking officials fraudulently certified Nepali citizens as Bhutanese refugees for resettlement in the United States. Politically, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal won a vote of confidence in March after losing the support of former coalition partners and forming a coalition with the Nepali Congress. In November, Nepal also became the first country in South Asia to begin registering same-sex marriages, under a Supreme Court order in June to establish a separate register for sexual minorities and non-traditional couples.
Social tensions and domestic unrest continue to challenge South Asia. In India, a shift toward a right-wing, nationalistic Hindutva ideology is eroding the rights of religious minorities and undermining its historically secular fabric. In 2023, ethnic clashes erupted in the northeastern state of Manipur in May. Tensions have continued to run high since then.
The possible involvement of Indian officials in extrajudicial assassination plots targeting alleged Sikh separatists on foreign soil with almost reckless disregard for the diplomatic repercussions came to the fore in 2023. The assassination of a Canadian citizen linked to the Khalistan movement led to a serious diplomatic spat between India and Canada. Subsequently, the U.S. government revealed an alleged Indian plot to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Sikh activist with U.S.-Canadian dual citizenship on American soil, and subsequently indicted an Indian national linked to the plot. However, both countries adopted a cautious approach, given their strong geopolitical and security partnership.
Pakistan’s troubles with terrorism worsened in 2023, intensified by the Afghan Taliban’s capturing of power in neighboring Afghanistan and the collapse of a ceasefire with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The surge in violence, especially in provinces bordering Afghanistan, was blamed on the Afghan Taliban’s alleged support and sanctuary to the TTP. In response, Pakistan announced plans to expel over 1.7 million undocumented Afghan migrants, citing their involvement in numerous attacks, including suicide bombings. The eviction of Afghan migrants triggered a massive humanitarian crisis and worsened tensions between Islamabad and Kabul.
Meanwhile, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan persisted with its socially regressive policies in 2023, notably restricting women and girls from higher education and from the professional workforce, contrary to their previous commitments.
For many South Asian countries, 2023 was dominated by either elections or campaigning, as it was an election year or the penultimate year before elections. In the Maldives’ presidential elections on September 30, Mohamed Muizzu of the People’s National Congress (PNC), in alliance with the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), emerged victorious over Ibrahim Mohamed Solih from the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP). Muizzu’s campaign, significantly influenced by the “India Out” movement initiated by former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, focused on opposing the Maldives’ perceived subservience to India and the Solih Government’s acceptance of an Indian military presence (it is worth noting that the sincerity of this campaign is questionable). Yameen himself, the original PPM-PNC candidate, was barred from the race by the Supreme Court due to a money laundering conviction.
In Bhutan, the first round of National Assembly elections took place on November 30, 2023. This will culminate in a runoff between the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) scheduled for January 9, 2024.
General elections in Bangladesh are scheduled for January 7, 2024. The integrity of these elections is under scrutiny due to allegations against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League of suppressing the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP). The BNP, led by its ailing leader Khaled Zia, has criticized the government’s refusal to reinstate the caretaker government system, which Hasina abolished in 2011.
In Pakistan, elections originally scheduled for 2023 have been postponed to February 2024. The caretaker government, led by Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar since August and succeeding Shehbaz Sharif, will oversee the elections. Political tensions have been high since Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed from power in April 2022 by a parliamentary no-confidence vote, loss of support from his former coalition, and a rift with the country’s influential military.
Despite these challenges and legal issues, notably for allegedly illegally selling state gifts during his tenure as prime minister, Khan has been striving for a political comeback. His party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), experienced a severe crackdown after its supporters stormed military and government installations on May 9, protesting Khan’s arrest earlier that month. Khan was sentenced to three years in prison on August 5 for the aforementioned charges.
India’s general election, scheduled to elect 543 members of its Lok Sabha, will proceed in 2024, most likely between April and May. Currently, prospects look promising for Prime Minister Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Despite considerable efforts by Rahul Gandhi and the Indian National Congress to mount a serious opposition, recent state legislative assembly results in major states, such as Rajasthan, indicate that Modi’s popularity across the country remains undiminished. If the BJP wins in 2024, Modi will become the first Indian prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru to secure a third term.
Narendra Modi has been a transformative figure not just domestically, but also internationally. During his tenure, India has become increasingly confident playing the part of a global great power. This shift is complemented by Washington’s substantial investment in New Delhi as part of its Indo-Pacific Strategy aimed at countering the threat the U.S. perceives from China’s challenge to a rules-based international order. India’s support for these efforts stems from its tensions with China along the disputed border in the Himalayas and India’s growing discomfiture at Beijing’s growing diplomatic and commercial influence across South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region.
Despite challenges, such as U.S. dissatisfaction with India’s neutral stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (a position influenced by Russia being a major arms supplier to India), the partnership’s overall trajectory is extremely positive, evident from the warm reception Modi received during his state visit to Washington to meet U.S. President Joe Biden in June. The U.S-India partnership is further bolstered by the mutual membership in the Quad grouping also comprising Japan and Australia, which is broadly aimed at countering China.
Beyond its U.S. ties, India is expanding its global outreach, strengthening partnerships with France, increasing commercial engagement with the wealthy Gulf states, and actively lobbying for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Having long abandoned the old foreign policy paradigms of non-alignment, India is now asserting itself as a formidable power.
As 2024 approaches, the impact of India’s ascent on the geopolitical dynamics of South Asia and the broader world will be a significant development to watch.