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.

India Takes Over G-20 Presidency

Leading the bloc gives New Delhi an opportunity to show what it can do on the global stage.

Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is greeted by Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 15.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is greeted by Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 15.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is greeted by Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 15. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: India prepares to assume the G-20 presidency amid growing tensions, Nepal holds elections on Sunday, and Pakistan lifts a short-lived screening ban on Oscar contender Joyland.

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

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: India prepares to assume the G-20 presidency amid growing tensions, Nepal holds elections on Sunday, and Pakistan lifts a short-lived screening ban on Oscar contender Joyland.

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


India’s G-20 Opportunity

On Wednesday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo handed over the presidency of the G-20 to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the group’s annual summit concluded in Bali. New Delhi will formally assume the role on Dec. 1, leading for much of 2023 and hosting the G-20 summit next September. India faces a challenging job: shepherding the world’s top economies through global financial stress against the backdrop of growing tensions among G-20 members.

Before traveling to Bali, Modi announced that the theme of India’s presidency would be “One Earth, One Family, One Future,” emphasizing equitable growth and shared futures for all. India will have to navigate a G-20 shaped by intensifying U.S.-China competition and Russia’s war in Ukraine. But the role will play to New Delhi’s strengths and provide a major opportunity to advance key foreign-policy interests.

During its G-20 presidency, India can showcase its diplomatic skills. The group includes the world’s biggest strategic competitors, the United States and China, as well as some of its most bitter rivals: the United States and Russia, China and South Korea, and China and Japan, to name a few. Great-power competition and toxic nationalism have hampered global efforts to counter shared threats such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Delhi excels at managing rival relationships, as recently shown by its tricky—but so far successful—balancing of relations with the United States and Russia during the latter’s war in Ukraine. India will certainly face its own diplomatic challenges within the G-20, especially with rival China. But Modi’s brief exchange with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week in Bali was an encouraging sign; it was the first between the two leaders since a deadly border clash in 2020. Perhaps India’s stepped-up engagement as G-20 president can help ease bilateral tensions.

India’s G-20 leadership will also allow it to highlight its recent economic successes on a global stage—some of which align with G-20 priority areas. These include advances in solar power development, digital health achievements, and broader economic growth. India became the world’s fifth-largest economy this year. Such achievements can redirect global attention from New Delhi’s domestic politics and democratic backsliding.

That said, India’s recently released logo for its G-20 presidency features an image of a lotus, the national flower that doubles as the symbol of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Critics of Indian policy could accuse Modi of politicizing India’s G-20 leadership role.

By showcasing its achievements from its leadership perch, India hopes to illustrate its growing global clout—and push back against criticism that it continues to “punch below its weight” on the global stage. To do so, India’s G-20 presidency must produce tangible achievements. Indian media report that New Delhi will use the position to push for one of its top foreign-policy goals: more robust multilateralism, including changes in multilateral lending organizations to facilitate more climate financing.

Finally, India’s G-20 presidency will make it a bridge between the developed and developing worlds. It will lead the world’s wealthiest economies—but with an opportunity to take on challenges that disproportionately affect the developing world, such as poverty, climate change, and pandemics. This will help advance two of India’s fundamental foreign-policy goals: balancing global relationships and championing developing-world causes.

Admittedly, surging tensions among G-20 members could complicate India’s role. Hamstrung by U.S.-China tensions, the group failed to mount a collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic during its early months. And that was before the war in Ukraine, which increased the bad blood between Russia and the West. Leading the world’s most influential, yet divided, bloc is a tall order. For India, a country with great-power aspirations, it’s a welcome challenge.


What We’re Following

Nepal’s elections approach. On Sunday, Nepal’s nearly 18 million eligible voters head to the polls in an election that pits the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba against an opposition coalition fronted by former Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli. The economy and foreign policy have been common themes during the campaign. China and India are competing for influence in Nepal, and Oli and the China-critical Deuba have sparred over geopolitics.

A close result is likely, with the final count expected by Dec. 8. Analysts have projected that despite voter disillusionment with the old guard, senior party figures are likely to prevail. There is a strong chance that the next prime minister will be a very familiar face: either Deuba or Oli, who have served a combined seven terms in the role.

This week, Nepal’s chief election commissioner, Dinesh Kumar Thapaliya, told the Kathmandu Post that final arrangements were being made to get polling officers up to speed, monitor possible disinformation, and ensure that voters won’t face any obstacles.

Pakistan lifts ban on Oscar contender. It’s been a turbulent week for Joyland, a highly regarded new Pakistani film and the first to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie has generated Oscar buzz and standing ovations around the world. But on Monday, Islamabad banned theaters in Pakistan from showing it, citing “highly objectionable material.” The film focuses on the romance between a young married man and a transgender dancer. Powerful religious leaders likely influenced the decision; tellingly, a lawmaker from the religious Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan party had lambasted the film.

On Wednesday, an advisor to Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced that after a review of the ban, the film was cleared for release. It’s now expected to open in theaters on Friday. The turnaround is a victory for freedom of expression in Pakistan and an encouraging sign that the state can stand up to influential hard-liners.

Nonetheless, barely 24 hours after the film was cleared for national release, the Punjab provincial government said it wouldn’t be released there. The movie was filmed in Lahore, the capital of Punjab—Pakistan’s most populous province.

India to overtake China in population. This week, the United Nations Population Division released its latest data, which reiterated previous estimates that India will become the world’s most populous country in 2023, overtaking China. By 2050, India’s population is expected to reach nearly 1.7 billion, compared with 1.3 billion in China by that year, as the latter sees demographic decline.

India and Pakistan are among just eight countries that will account for more than half of global population growth up to 2050, according to the data. However, Indian government figures released last month showed that India’s annual population growth rate has actually declined in recent years and birth rates have fallen from 3.4 in 1992-93 to 2 in 2019-21.


Under the Radar

The Lusail Stadium is seen ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Lusail, Qatar, on Nov. 11.
The Lusail Stadium is seen ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Lusail, Qatar, on Nov. 11.

The Lusail Stadium is seen ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Lusail, Qatar, on Nov. 11.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

Several million workers from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan have long resided in the Persian Gulf region, many as migrant laborers working under difficult conditions. Less is known about the Nepali workers in the region—and especially those in Qatar, where the World Cup begins on Sunday. Only India has sent more workers to Qatar in the last decade, the New York Times reports. Between July 2020 and July 2021, nearly 185,000 Nepali workers traveled to Qatar.

Many Nepali workers have risked their lives in Qatar. Last week, the Diplomat shared the stories of Nepali laborers who died while working on World Cup construction projects in Qatar. The Diplomat report says at least 1,700 Nepalis have died in Qatar since 2010; the Times puts the figure at 2,100. The workers profiled in the Diplomat fell to their deaths, but the Times report highlights other causes of death for Nepali workers, including heat-related issues, heart attacks, and suicide.

Other workers have returned to Nepal only to have serious health problems, including kidney failure. Critics and workers’ families have blamed not only Qatar for its poor working conditions but also Nepal’s government for not focusing more attention on the problem.


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Regional Voices

In the Kathmandu Post, journalists Sangam Prasain and Krishana Prasain report that Nepal’s inflation is likely preventing the economic boost that election campaigns often bring. “[E]lections are associated with frantic spending as the government pumps billions of rupees into the market. Candidates open their wallets. … Spending propels economic growth whenever elections are held, but that is strangely not happening,” they write.

A Dhaka Tribune editorial praises Bangladesh for using digital technology to make public transportation more effective. A new plan that allows people to purchase bus tickets aims to “regulate bus fares and bring order to an otherwise disorderly system, facilitating ease of access and use for regular commuters,” the editorial notes.

Writing in Dawn, retired diplomat Maleeha Lodhi warns of the risk of serious escalation in Pakistan’s ongoing political crisis. “With neither side prepared to back down, the battle lines are sharply drawn,” she writes. “That only portends more escalation in political tensions with increasingly uncertain consequences for both a fragile democracy and a shaky economy.”

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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