Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief, the newsletter that keeps you up to date on a region that is home to one-fourth of humanity.
This week: Indians cheer Joe Biden’s pick of Kamala Harris as his running mate, what to make of Pakistan’s surprising coronavirus numbers, the key positions in Sri Lanka’s new cabinet, and Afghanistan moves one step closer to intra-Afghan peace talks.
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Kamala Harris’s Indian Roots
Kamala Devi Harris made history this week as the first Black and Indian American woman on a major party ticket in a U.S. presidential election. While her selection as presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s running mate is rightly seen as pathbreaking in the United States, it has also generated pride and discussion in India—where her mother grew up and which Harris visited frequently as a child.
In a 2018 speech, Harris spoke of how walks with her grandfather on the beach in Chennai “had a profound impact” on her. And in a 2009 interview with India Abroad, Harris spoke candidly of how her mother “was very proud of her Indian heritage” and how India’s democratic nature “had a great deal of influence on what I do today and who I am.”
Now India is proud of Harris. In the wake of Biden’s announcement on Tuesday, Harris was trending on Twitter in India, and television cameras lined up outside the Chennai home Harris visited as a young girl. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ram Madhav tweeted a thumbs-up emoji, congratulating Harris.
India policy. Kamala is the Hindi and Sanskrit word for lotus, the flower that is also the symbol of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP. While Harris herself is a relative foreign-policy unknown, some of her views on India suggest she may clash with the current Indian government.
When Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar visited Washington last December, he refused to meet members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee if Rep. Pramila Jayapal—who has criticized India’s Kashmir policy—was present, and the meeting was canceled. At the time, Harris criticized Jaishankar’s actions, saying, “It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill.”
And in October 2019, two months after India revoked the autonomy of Indian-administered Kashmir, Harris had a warning for New Delhi: “We are watching.” As Harris’s uncle Gopalan Balachandran told the Hindustan Times this week, Harris “likes India. … But that doesn’t mean she gives a free pass to everything that India does.”
Broader trends. A potential Biden administration would likely walk a fine line between strengthening ties with India—a bipartisan trend in Washington for the last two decades—and finding ways to gently chide New Delhi for perceived missteps. When President Barack Obama visited New Delhi in 2015, the Indian media dubbed his embrace of Modi as the start of a “bromance.”
But in a speech at a town hall in the city, Obama warned Indians about a rise in Hindu-Muslim tensions without mentioning Modi by name: “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith, as long as it is not splintered along any lines, and it is unified as one nation,” he said. It is likely that Biden would hew to Obama’s path on dealing with Modi’s India—no matter the influence of his new running mate.
Harris may play a greater role on other issues important to Indians and South Asians. She could represent an important soft-power boon for America’s battered global image, as Krithika Varagur argues in Foreign Policy. And as Neil Makhija writes in FP, when the Trump administration suspended visas for highly skilled immigrants, most of which go to South Asians, Harris “confronted Trump’s nativism … introducing legislation to remove national caps on H-1B visas that lead to lengthy delays for Indian immigrants seeking green cards.”
South Asia’s coronavirus cases hit 3 million. Several top Indian politicians are battling COVID-19, including former President Pranab Mukherjee, who is in critical condition. Last week, Home Minister Amit Shah contracted the virus. With nearly 64,000 new cases on Thursday, India is now recording more daily coronavirus cases than any other country. And the situation could be worse, given that its testing rate of around 19,431 per million is far lower than Brazil’s 62,197 per million or the United States’ 205,032 per million.
As shown above, India now has nearly 2.5 million total cases, with more than 47,000 deaths. Meanwhile, both Pakistan and Bangladesh have dramatically slowed their rates of discovery of new cases. In Pakistan, the Wall Street Journal reports that once overflowing coronavirus wards are emptying.
Why? It is a bit of a mystery. Pakistan is testing just 9,964 people per million—half of India’s rate—and lifted many of its restrictions as early as May. One reason could be that Pakistan has a young population, even by South Asian standards, as the Journal points out: Only 4 percent of its population is older than 65, and the average age is 22. Furthermore, there are no bars or nightclubs, very few homes for the elderly—all sites of increased transmission in other countries—and women tend to stay home.
Pax Rajapaksa? After last week’s elections in Sri Lanka, four Rajapaksa family members hold cabinet positions in the new government. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will continue to oversee defense, while his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, the prime minister, will take charge of finance, urban development, and Buddhist affairs. Two other brothers, Chamal Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa, will oversee the irrigation and sports ministries, respectively. The president’s personal lawyer, Ali Sabry, was appointed justice minister.
Sri Lanka’s relatively successful handling of the pandemic has somewhat masked the Rajapaksa brothers’ illiberal tendencies, as Neil DeVotta argues in FP. “Both Mahinda and Gotabaya are Sinhalese Buddhist supremacists,” he writes, describing the recent strengthening of the government as “particularly scary for the country’s Muslims.” It’s all part of a broader trend of illiberal leadership across South Asia, including in India and Bangladesh, as FP columnist James Crabtree pointed out last year.
Afghan prisoner release. Afghanistan has moved one step closer to peace talks between the government and the Taliban after a grand assembly of elders approved the release of a final batch of Taliban prisoners this week. On Monday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed a formal decree enacting the decision. Reports indicate that brokered talks between the Taliban and Ghani’s government could begin in Doha as soon as this weekend.
When the talks do begin, participants may want to heed the words of Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States. Rahmani, the first woman in her position, argues in FP for the increased inclusion of women in the peace talks to not only aid the negotiations but also ensure the long-term success of any agreement.
India press attack. On Tuesday, three journalists from India’s Caravan magazine were attacked by a mob in Delhi. One of the journalists was sexually assaulted. The Caravan team was investigating a communal incident that took place in northeast Delhi on Aug. 5, the day Modi broke ground on a controversial Hindu temple. According to a statement from the Press Club of India, the reporters were looking into police complicity in the communal violence.
As of this writing, Delhi police still haven’t filed a so-called “first incident report,” which would begin an investigation into Tuesday’s attack on press freedom. As FP has reported previously, Delhi’s police force reports to the central government and has been accused of standing by as Hindu mobs attacked Muslims in February.
On Thursday, India announced a $500 million infrastructure package for one of its South Asian neighbors in a bid to counter Chinese influence. Which country was the recipient of this aid?
A) The Maldives
B) Sri Lanka
Scroll down for the answer.
Self-defense through self-reliance? Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh has announced a ban on the import of certain types of military equipment in a bid to boost local defense manufacturing. “We cannot depend on foreign governments, foreign suppliers, and foreign defence products to meet our defence needs,” he tweeted. The move is part of Modi’s push for greater self-reliance, in light of recent skirmishes with China and Pakistan.
While India recently welcomed the arrival of five Rafale fighter jets from France, a switch to local procurement may not be so easy. In one of the most-read articles in FP this week, Harsh V. Pant and Angad Singh wrote that “the Indian Air Force has repeatedly sought to invest in its own force multipliers but has always ended up stymied by funding issues or procurement rules.”
Nepal’s growing unemployment. A top central bank official in Nepal says businesses in that country have laid off nearly a quarter of their workers because of the coronavirus pandemic. A survey of the country’s economy showed hotels and restaurants particularly hurt by a drop in economic activity and tourism.
A) The Maldives.
The $500 million Indian aid package announced Thursday will connect the capital, Male, to three nearby islands in the Maldives. India has sought to expand its influence in the Maldives, especially since 2018, when President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih came to power. Solih’s predecessor, Abdulla Yameen, was seen as pro-China and was sentenced to prison last year for money laundering linked to Chinese companies.
That’s it for this week.
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