South Asia Brief

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to one-fourth of the world’s population. Delivered Thursday.

Trump May Have Lost, but Modi Is Still Winning

A surprising state electoral victory underscores the enduring popularity of India’s prime minister.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets Bharatiya Janata Party workers after a resounding victory in the Bihar state assembly election in New Delhi on Nov. 11.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets Bharatiya Janata Party workers after a resounding victory in the Bihar state assembly election in New Delhi on Nov. 11. Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. Today: Modi’s coalition wins a key state election in India, attacks on journalists increase in Afghanistan, Pakistan gets into a Twitter kerfuffle with the U.S. Embassy, and India enters a technical recession.

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. Today: Modi’s coalition wins a key state election in India, attacks on journalists increase in Afghanistan, Pakistan gets into a Twitter kerfuffle with the U.S. Embassy, and India enters a technical recession.

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


Modi’s Coronavirus Referendum

With the coronavirus still raging in much of the world, 2020 is not a good year for incumbents to face up to voters. But in a closely fought election in Bihar, India’s third-most populous state, a coalition including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) returned to power on Wednesday, surprising pollsters and analysts.

Unlikely result? Bihar residents had several reasons to vote against the BJP and its local ally, incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) party. Bihar is among India’s poorest states, with a weak health care system, and it has been hit hard by the pandemic. Nearly one-third of young people in Bihar were unemployed last year—a rate almost twice as high as the national average.

When India announced a sudden lockdown in March, migrant workers in big cities rushed back to their homes in places such as Bihar, increasing pressure on the state’s resources. Perhaps as a result, polls suggested a big win for 31-year-old opposition leader Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, the son of jailed former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Modi’s mandate. Polls seem to have underestimated Modi’s enduring popularity. State elections in India are increasingly seen as referendums on national parties and leaders. In that sense, the vote represented the first big test for Modi since the start of the pandemic. With more than 41 million votes cast, the result could be a thumbs-up for Modi’s continued authority—despite the fact that India has the second-most coronavirus cases in the world and has seen a dramatic fall in economic activity in 2020.

Amid the fallout of a closer-than-expected election in the United States, the Bihar result underscores how pollsters around the world are struggling to reflect voters’ sentiments, especially in rural areas. It also suggests that analysts are still underestimating the stickiness of leaders seen as strongmen.

Comparisons between Modi and other world leaders are often overwrought. But with Trump’s showing last week, one could draw the conclusion that electorates are not judging leaders as harshly for the coronavirus as expected, perhaps because the pandemic is seen as more of a natural disaster than one worsened by human choices.


What We’re Following

Afghan journalists targeted. A radio journalist was killed in Afghanistan’s Helmand province on Thursday in a targeted bomb blast. Elyas Dayee worked for Radio Free Afghanistan. The attack follows one on another local journalist, Yama Siawash, who was killed last week in Kabul. In both attacks, bombs were planted on the journalists’ vehicles.

Patricia Gossman of Human Rights Watch tweeted that the bombing was “part of an alarming pattern of increased threats and attacks on the media by the Taliban.”

U.S.-Pakistan Twitter incident. On Tuesday, a Pakistani opposition leader shared a Washington Post headline calling Trump’s defeat “a blow for the world’s demagogues and dictators” with the comment, “We have one in Pakistan too.” The tweet, a reference to Prime Minister Imran Khan, was then retweeted by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad’s official account.

Within hours, #ApologiseUSembassy began trending in Pakistan. By Wednesday, the embassy did just that, saying its account “was accessed last night without authorization … We apologize for any confusion that may have resulted.”

Pakistan cricket landmark. Alia Zafar, a human-resources executive, has become the first woman to be appointed as an independent director on the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), the national agency that organizes the country’s most popular sport. In the Tuesday announcement, PCB chairman Ehsan Mani called Zafar’s appointment “a giant step forward in enhancing the PCB’s governance structure.”

Coronavirus update. The onset of winter is raising fears of a spike in coronavirus cases across South Asia. In Bangladesh, the government has extended a closure of all educational institutions until Dec. 19. Nepal has announced it is making coronavirus tests free of charge to encourage people to get tested. And in India, there are increasing reports of hospitals running out of beds in cities such as New Delhi, which has also been grappling with hazardous air quality and a rise in lung health complaints.

As shown above, South Asia now has nearly 10 million coronavirus cases. The real number is likely orders of magnitude higher, given generally low rates of testing.


South Asia, Inc.

Indian recession. New data from India’s central bank shows that the country has likely entered its first-ever recession, the technical term for two consecutive quarters of decreasing economic activity. According to Bloomberg, an estimate by the Reserve Bank of India suggests that gross domestic product fell by 8.6 percent in the quarter that ended in September. The economy contracted by 24 percent in the previous quarter.

In an interview with the BBC’s Soutik Biswas, the economist and former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India needed to borrow its way out of its current crisis. If it “can save lives, borders, restore livelihoods and boost economic growth, then it’s worth it,” Singh said.

Censorship or regulation? India’s government has issued an order to regulate digital media, bringing online news portals, streaming video services, and social media under the authority of the country’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry. The move raises fears that the government could expand its powers and potentially censor content it deems a threat.


What We’re Reading

I enjoyed reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s review of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s new book A Promised Land. Adichie is tough on Obama at times: “Often, in this book, Barack Obama does an Obama. He is a man watching himself watch himself, curiously puritanical in his skepticism, turning to see every angle and possibly dissatisfied with all, and genetically incapable of being an ideologue,” she writes.

Adichie picks out some choice quotes of Obama’s impressions of various world leaders. It’s worth highlighting Obama’s take on Rahul Gandhi, the former leader of the Indian National Congress party and the scion of a long line of prime ministers. Gandhi has “a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject,” Adichie writes. Ouch.


That’s it for this week.

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Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports