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 Wednesday.

What Is South Asia’s Role at Biden’s Democracy Summit?

Modi receives special treatment while Pakistan declines to attend.

Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief and the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House on Sept. 24.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House on Sept. 24.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House on Sept. 24. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: What South Asia makes of the White House democracy summit, Russia-India relations receive a boost, and India’s chief of defense staff dies in a helicopter crash.

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

The Democracy Summit and South Asia

The Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy, hosted virtually today and Friday, comes at a moment of global democratic backsliding. However, controversy over the list of participating countries, coupled with the perception that the United States is an unfit host, has accompanied the event. The South Asian invitees prove democratic performance isn’t the sole criterion for a seat at the summit.

The White House invited four South Asian countries to the Summit for Democracy: India, Maldives, Nepal, and Pakistan. But in Freedom House’s 2021 democracy rankings, Pakistan and the Maldives were among the lowest rated in the region, and India’s position was downgraded to “partially free.” Bhutan and Sri Lanka, which are not exemplary democracies but rank higher on the Freedom House index, weren’t invited.

The Biden administration hasn’t provided details on how it selected countries, but it appears to have invited the South Asian states that could best serve its current interests. Countries in the region were already inclined to view the summit cynically, and despite its focus on democratic values, the invite list reflects U.S. realpolitik.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi received special treatment at the summit. Today, he spoke about Indian democracy at a plenary session with only 12 participants; he gives an official speech on Friday. Indians who want their country to play a bigger role on the world stage may take pride in Modi’s participation. But his critics point out that he has presided over major democratic crackdowns at home.

Even within India, there is some unease about Modi’s participation at the summit. Some fear India’s democracy record will be “scrutinized.” Others, including at least one senior ruling party leader, are uncomfortable with New Delhi taking part in a democracy promotion event spearheaded by Washington given the United States’ own struggles with democracy.

Washington may have invited Islamabad as a form of appeasement, given Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s snub at the White House climate summit earlier this year. But Pakistan announced Wednesday it wouldn’t participate. It may intend to telegraph its unhappiness with the Biden administration’s lack of high-level engagement. Pakistani media reports have claimed Islamabad was uncomfortable participating in a summit that excluded China, Pakistan’s biggest ally, and included Taiwan. Either way, the decision not to attend will play well with the Pakistani public.

Meanwhile, Maldives and Nepal have become targets of high-level U.S. diplomacy: Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Nepal’s prime minister, and Colin Kahl, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, called Maldives’ foreign minister. This unusual outreach is likely part of an effort to wean the countries away from increasing Chinese influence.

Despite ramping up economic ties with China, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka have not seen similar engagement with the United States. Tellingly, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen recently said Dhaka is perfectly capable of strengthening democracy on its own—but it expects to be invited to the next summit.

Although India, Maldives, and Nepal may be happy to attend a U.S.-led democracy summit, they won’t necessarily be comfortable implementing the recommendations that emerge from it. Most governments in the region—especially New Delhi—resent U.S. criticism of their democracies, particularly as Washington grapples with its own democratic backsliding.

Another complication is geopolitics: Because the White House excluded China but invited Taiwan, the event will be perceived through the lens of the U.S.-China rivalry. Smaller South Asian states, already caught up in India-China competition, may not want to be closely associated with a summit perceived as an anti-China initiative—particularly since China’s ally Pakistan isn’t attending. Maldives and Nepal may keep a low profile and distance themselves from the summit’s recommendations.

Moreover, the summit could in fact undermine a shared U.S.-India goal of mobilizing a broader coalition to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region. Washington didn’t invite three key players: Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. This could set back efforts to build solidarity among the Indo-Pacific countries.

Washington’s best bet is to show humility at the summit and acknowledge it has its own work to do to strengthen democracy. This will give its democracy-building activities more credibility in South Asia. The White House should also expand the invite list for the next summit and be transparent about the criteria to attend.

This would reduce some anxiety about democracy promotion efforts—a pillar of U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy that is treated with skepticism in the region.

The Week Ahead

Monday, Dec. 13: The Wilson Center hosts an online discussion on efforts in Pakistan to fight extremism.

Tuesday, Dec. 14: The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a confirmation hearing to consider the nominations of Donald Blome as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and Eric Garcetti as U.S. ambassador to India.

Thursday, Dec. 16: Bangladesh marks the 50-year anniversary of the end of the Bangladesh Liberation War, known in the country as Victory Day.

What We’re Following

Modi meets Putin. Modi held a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. Although each leader invoked nostalgia about their countries’ partnership, the main headline was that they inked 28 new deals. One of the meeting’s main goals was to emphasize that India-Russia relations remain robust despite geopolitical red flags: Each side is deepening ties with the other’s rivals.

At the summit, New Delhi also confirmed it is acquiring Moscow’s S-400 missile defense package. The United States is unlikely to sanction India for the purchase, as it did with Turkey. But with India’s pursuit of additional arms deals, Russia will remain a rare tension point for its relations with the United States.

In Foreign Policy this week, journalist Charu Sudan Kasturi writes on the challenges Modi faces in balancing India’s relations with Moscow and Washington.

A lynching in Pakistan. On Friday, factory workers in Sialkot, Pakistan, accused their manager, Priyantha Kumara, of blasphemy; they then beat him to death before setting his body on fire. The details of the attack remain unclear, but local officials and Kumara’s colleagues said he was accused of blasphemy after he removed posters—possibly bearing the name of the Prophet Muhammad—from a wall so it could be cleaned.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws criminalize anything that causes offense to Islam, and they are often exploited by religious hard-liners, especially against religious minorities. Such allegations have long led to mob violence, but Friday’s tragedy could have major political, diplomatic, and economic implications.

The perpetrators were allegedly inspired by a hard-line political party recently mainstreamed by the government. The victim was from Sri Lanka, one of the few South Asian countries Pakistan has close ties with. And Kumara worked for Rajco Industries, a top Pakistani textile exporter that partners with Hugo Boss.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid writes in Foreign Policy this week about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Top Indian commander killed in crash. India’s chief of defense staff, Gen. Bipin Rawat, died alongside 12 other people in a helicopter crash in southern India on Wednesday. India’s Air Force described the tragedy as an “unfortunate accident.” Rawat was flying in a Russian-made Mi-17V5 helicopter often used for military transport; several Mi-17V5s in India’s aging air fleet have crashed in recent years.

Ironically, one of Rawat’s main priorities as India’s first chief of defense staff—a position he assumed in January 2020—was military modernization. Rawat was previously India’s Army chief, and he shaped high-level military policy within the government for many years after serving as an Army commander specialized in counterinsurgency operations.

Omicron and South Asia. The new omicron variant of the coronavirus has already been detected in India and Sri Lanka, and Pakistan has announced new travel bans for countries in Europe and Africa. Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka have done the same for some parts of southern Africa. India suspended earlier plans to relax restrictions on international travel.

Omicron poses a significant risk to South Asia because so many people remain unvaccinated there, as in much of the developing world. Although several countries in the region have made significant progress with immunizations, millions of people still aren’t fully vaccinated, as shown below.

Under the Radar

On Saturday, Indian paramilitary forces searching for insurgents in Nagaland state killed eight coal miners returning from work in the village of Oting, India. The government described the attack as a case of “mistaken identity.” Subsequent violence between soldiers and locals killed six more civilians later in the weekend, including when security forces fired into a crowd of people after an Indian soldier was killed.

The tragedy reflects the volatility of India’s northeast, home to multiple separatist insurgencies. Violence in the region has eased in recent years following heavy military operations and peace agreements, but clashes have resumed this year in some northeastern states. The situation in Oting remains tense: Locals lambasted the attack as deliberate and have banned military personnel from entering their village.

Nagaland politicians—including the state leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—have also disputed New Delhi’s version of events. The attack has sparked a debate about a controversial Indian law that gives the military expanded powers in volatile areas.

Quote of the Week

“We must reverse course before the flames of intolerance devour us as a nation.”

—An editorial in Pakistan’s Dawn on the dangers of the state policies that contributed to the recent lynching of a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot, Pakistan.

Regional Voices

Daily FT columnist Tisaranee Gunasekara warns observers can’t rule out the possibility of Sri Lanka’s military, which has long stayed in the barracks, taking on a greater political role: “If the government continues to fail and the opposition fails to inspire … something might give way. The unprecedented is often unthinkable, right until it happens,” she writes.

Daily Star editor Shuprova Tasneem writes about Murad Hassan, the Bangladeshi minister for information and broadcasting who recently resigned for of misogynistic comments. She questions whether this is sufficient punishment for Hassan, who remains a legislator. “Will this same man be allowed to stand up in parliament and speak for us? What does this tell us about the leaders of this country?” Tasneem writes.

A Kathmandu Post editorial laments the lack of younger leaders in Nepalese politics. “The old guard will not hand leadership positions to the youth; it is up to the youth to wriggle them from the hands of the older men,” it argues.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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