Democratic Backsliding Hasn’t Stopped India’s Rise – Foreign Policy

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: India steps into a bigger role on the world stage with little public criticism for its democratic backsliding, Moody’s downgrades Pakistan’s credit rating and warns of default risk, and the Taliban move into the Afghan Embassy in Tehran.

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: India steps into a bigger role on the world stage with little public criticism for its democratic backsliding, Moody’s downgrades Pakistan’s credit rating and warns of default risk, and the Taliban move into the Afghan Embassy in Tehran.

If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

India Under the Spotlight?

India is on a diplomatic roll. This week, New Delhi hosted the foreign ministers from the G-20, with some staying on for a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) meeting on Saturday. On Friday, India will convene the Raisina Dialogue, a gathering of global thought leaders. In the last few days, New Delhi also welcomed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

A few weeks ago, India signed a landmark deal to acquire Boeing and Airbus jets, positioning itself to become the world’s most important emerging market for the aerospace sector. Next week, when Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visits New Delhi, Deakin University is expected to announce plans to establish a campus in India; it would be the first foreign university to open one there.

The world is flocking to India: It is one of the globe’s fastest-growing economies (and a top hub for the services sector) and has become a critical piece in U.S.-led efforts to counter China. But it’s hard to ignore how India’s rapid rise on the global stage has coincided with increasing crackdowns on dissent within its borders. But, keen to avoid upsetting a strategic partner, the international community has largely kept quiet.

Under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, officials have used money laundering and foreign funding laws to curb civil society activities and government agencies to intimidate the free press. Last month, Indian tax officials raided local BBC offices after the broadcaster aired a documentary—quickly banned by the government—about Modi and his relationship with the country’s Muslim minority.

India rejects the indices used by Western organizations such as Freedom House to rank Indian democracy. It also rebukes foreign voices that bring attention to the nation’s democratic backsliding—including most recently philanthropist George Soros. But outside of Beijing and Islamabad, most foreign governments have avoided publicly criticizing New Delhi because they view it as a key trade partner. Even leaders in the Muslim world have stayed relatively quiet about the plight of marginalized Muslims in India.

Of course, international relations are driven by interests, not morals. But India’s democratic backsliding remains a topic of conversation in large part because of the significance that New Delhi itself places on its democracy. It wears the “world’s largest democracy” label on its sleeve and trumpets its success stories, from efficient elections to the military’s subservience to civilian leadership. Furthermore, the Quad and broader efforts to counter China are often depicted as the work of like-minded democracies.

India poses a unique challenge for the Biden administration. The White House has identified promoting democracy and human rights as a foreign-policy priority, and shared democratic values have long bolstered the U.S. partnership with India. But Washington does give quiet attention to declining rights in India: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met with civil society groups in India, including this week. This has limited effect, but it’s still worth doing.

Indeed, if the United States or any concerned ally were to go public with worries about India’s democratic backsliding, it would both upset New Delhi and do little to address the problem. But flagging it, even if in private, at least signals to India that its key partners are watching. It also doesn’t hurt for Washington, while doing so, to acknowledge its own struggles with democracy in recent years.

As the international community tightens its embrace of India, it must be ready for what could come next. After all, the more free passes New Delhi receives, the more emboldened it will be to ramp up its crackdowns at home.

Pakistan’s credit rating downgraded. Moody’s credit rating agency issued its worst assessment of Pakistan in three decades on Tuesday, warning that the country’s “increasingly fragile liquidity and external position” have significantly raised the risk of it defaulting on its foreign debt. Pakistan has been racing against time to conclude a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to unlock $1.1 billion in loan funds, which would likely forestall a default. An IMF delegation in Pakistan last month reported progress on talks, but it’s unclear when an agreement will come.

The downgrade will darken an already-gloomy mood among Pakistanis about the country’s economic crisis. During my visit to Karachi and Islamabad last week, the public sense of uncertainty and foreboding was hard to miss. I heard about growing lines at soup kitchens with insufficient funds and people with steady jobs having to spend large portions of their monthly income on fuel costs. Young people told me they would leave Pakistan if they could.

A tragic sign of some citizens’ desperation came last Sunday, when 28 Pakistanis were among at least 59 migrants who died when their boat sank off the Italian coast.

New report assesses Afghan military collapse. Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the Biden administration has moved on from the nearly 20-year war it waged there. Aside from establishing the congressionally mandated Afghanistan War Commission, it has taken few steps to assess what went wrong. That makes the release of a new report by a watchdog—the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)—all the more important; SIGAR was established by Congress in 2008 and has produced frequent, often critical studies of U.S. actions in Afghanistan.

The SIGAR report concludes that successive U.S. administrations failed to make the Afghan security forces self-reliant, and that the decision to depart Afghanistan shattered morale and helped contribute to the collapse of the Afghan military. SIGAR identifies many other U.S. policy mistakes, including the sharp reduction in air strikes after concluding a 2020 deal with the Taliban, at a moment when air power had helped push back Taliban advances.

The SIGAR report marks one of the most comprehensive efforts yet to understand U.S. war failures. But the question is whether it will help ensure U.S. policymakers don’t repeat the same mistakes in the future.

Taliban take over Afghan Embassy in Tehran. The Taliban government announced on Monday that it has started staffing the Afghan Embassy in neighboring Tehran. That makes Iran one of about a dozen countries in which the Taliban claims to have representatives running Afghan diplomatic facilities, although no country formally recognizes the Taliban government. The other countries include China, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey.

What is striking about this development is that Tehran has publicly and sharply criticized the Taliban regime, especially its lack of inclusivity—an important issue for Shia-majority Iran. However, Iran’s relationship with the Taliban is complex. It has had hostile relations with the group at times, but it also provided sanctuary to some Taliban leaders during the United States-led war in Afghanistan. For years, Iran has hosted thousands of Afghan refugees.

Today, the Taliban and Tehran are united in their fear of the Islamic State-Khorasan militant group, which operates in Afghanistan. Iran allowing the Taliban to set up shop in the embassy may signal intent to strengthen bilateral cooperation to better tackle the shared threat.

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Nepal struggles to keep a government in power: It’s cycled through 11 of them since 2008. The most recent government took office late last December. Barely two months later, it’s already in crisis. This time, a weak coalition led by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is in danger of collapsing after Dahal opted to support a presidential candidate who is a member of the opposition Nepali Congress party.

According to coalition leaders, Dahal originally promised to back a candidate from the Communist Unified Marxist-Lenin party (UML). Eight senior UML leaders, including the current foreign affairs minister, have resigned, along with four ministers from other coalition parties. Dahal will likely face a no-confidence vote within the next month.

Experts say he’ll likely win that vote, thanks to support from the large Nepali Congress—a party he has cooperated with in the past—resulting in yet another new coalition government. Nepal’s cycle of ever-changing coalitions is only likely to continue. In the words of analyst Rajendra Maharajan, “When leaders give priority to personal interests over that of their parties’, alliances are always in danger of collapse.”

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