“India Out”: What this campaign means for South Asian neighbours


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TESSA WALKER

Profound social and political shifts are taking place in South Asia as anti-Indian sentiment grows throughout the region, seen most strongly in Bangladesh and Maldives. Both countries have been gripped by recent “India Out” campaigns, resulting in boycotts of Indian products in Bangladesh, and of Indian tourists avoiding travel to the Maldives. Such campaigns have the potential to reduce India’s role as the principal security provider in the region, and feed into wider competition with China.

India’s “Neighbourhood-First Policy” was see an a counter to China’s efforts to garner influence in the region, notably through its Belt and Road Initiative, which has also raised India’s ire. However, the vast amount of money Beijing is willing to pour into infrastructure and investment proposals is often tempting for smaller South Asian states. In Bangladesh, China and Chinese firms have invested an estimated US$7 billion, while in Maldives, the figure stands at US$1 billion. This has fuelled geopolitical competition with India, which has its own border dispute with China.

Where India cannot fill the needs of smaller South Asian states, China exists as a powerful, tempting actor creating economic and political competition within the region.

In Bangladesh, the re-election in January of a pro-Indian government, headed by long-serving Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, was marred by voting integrity concerns. The opposition Bangladeshi National Party boycotted the ballot over Hasina’s refusal to install a neutral administration to oversee the polls. But it was public perceptions of Indian interference that subsequently culminated in an “India Out” campaign. A mass boycott of Indian products within the country was fuelled on social media by a call from a Bangladeshi doctor in exile, Pinaki Bhattacharya. This campaign could further exacerbate existing tensions surrounding “democratic backsliding” and growing “authoritarian” undertones within Bangladesh, which has already drawn international scrutiny.

Despite the Awami League having strong relations with Delhi, Bangladesh became a part of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2016. China and Bangladesh’s defence relationship is defined by a defence cooperation largely in military personnel training, bolstered by Bangladesh’s position as China’s second-largest arms customer.

Tourism is a mainstay of the Maldives economy (Rayyu Maldives/Unsplash)
Tourism is a mainstay of the Maldives economy (Rayyu Maldives/Unsplash)

 

The story in the Maldives stems from a different type of disagreement, although both are based on concerns surrounding sovereignty.

The spat between India and the Maldives has deep roots, with a new government in Maldives taking power last year, seen as pro-China and pledging to end security cooperation with India. Tension further flared when three Maldivian ministers spoke out against Prime Minister Narendra Modi making a visit in January to the Indian territory of Lakshadweep, promoting the island as a prime destination for Indian tourists. The ministers took to social media, calling Modi a “clown” and a “terrorist”, angering the Indian public and triggering an Indian tourist boycott of the country. The trip was seen by some in Male as an attempt by Delhi to draw Indian tourists away from Maldives, where they make up a large portion of international arrivals.

Tourism is a major contributor to the Maldives’ economy, making up more than 28% of the total GDP. In 2022 and 2023, Indian tourists comprised the largest group entering Maldives, but Indian arrivals in Maldives have fallen 33% this year. Maldives’ Tourism Minister Ibrahim Faisal this month pleaded for Indian tourists to return, citing a desire to repair relations between the two countries. The Maldives foreign minister also agreed to debt relief in talks with his Indian counterpart at the weekend.

But the tension isn’t likely to quickly evaporate. Indian media seized on comments in recent days by Maldives’ defence minister, admitting that the country could no longer fly three aircraft previously donated by India. And more so, further strengthening of Maldives ties with China will be viewed with suspicion.

A changing socio-political landscape in South Asia, combined with the economic growth of smaller states within the region, has potentially destabilising effects for India. Pro-Chinese and friendly Chinese foreign policy presents a growing divide, positioning China in what Bangladesh-based analyst Lailufar Yasmin has described as a “balancer to counter-hegemony against India for South Asian countries”. That is, where India cannot fill the needs of smaller South Asian states, China exists as a powerful, tempting actor creating economic and political competition within the region. These smaller states are no longer solely reliant upon India as a partner, being able to look elsewhere for foreign investment and large-scale trade. This carries the potential to deepen the rift between India and China.

Historically, small countries in South Asia have had to be “sensible and sensitive to the power dynamics between China and India”. As a burgeoning India Out campaign reaches across multiple states, the dynamic appears to be shifting. In the Maldives case, a small nation is exercising its independence, while opponents of the government in Bangladesh seek leverage.

source : lowyinstitute

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