Elections in South Asia key for regional dynamics

India is positioning itself for economic renewal to bolster regional alliances and strengthen security, while China looks for openings.

Man holding hands in prayer position being draped with wreath of flowers
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center) with Defense Minister Rajnath Singh (left), BJP national President J P Nadda (right) and others during the BJP National Convention at Bharat Mandapam, Pragati Maidan, on February 17, 2024, in New Delhi, India. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • The Modi government is using carrots and sticks to ensure India’s South Asian preeminence
  • Spring elections will likely confirm New Delhi’s current trajectory
  • China is looking to win favor in India’s neighborhood, fueling Asian rivalry

If 2023 was the year of India’s global engagement, in 2024 New Delhi’s focus will return to its immediate region in an election year with much at stake. For all its desire to be considered a global power, India’s priority has always been on ensuring primacy in South Asia.

Five countries in the region, including India, will have had elections this year before the United States presidential vote in November. The results of elections in Maldives, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, along with its own polls, will affect New Delhi’s strategic decisions and future relationships with states it sees as part of its historical neighborhood.

Sphere of influence

India’s foreign policy has been shaped by its 5,000 years of geostrategic and civilizational preeminence. Even after being partitioned on the eve of independence from colonial rule in 1947, makers of modern India’s foreign policy have always seen the subcontinent as one entity and sought close ties with countries that are part of civilizational India and are critical to ensure the country’s territorial integrity and security.

As the geographical, socio-cultural and economic center of South Asia, some neighboring states were once part of a greater Indian empire; others were separate kingdoms within a vast Indian civilization. Yet border disagreements and India’s size often fuel resentment or fear of domination among its neighbors.

The partitioning of India left a bitter legacy and Muslim-majority Pakistan has, since its inception, defined its national identity in opposition to “Hindu India.” Pakistan continues to publicly voice suspicions about India seeking to dominate South Asia, and India periodically must manage similar criticism from other countries. Politicians in neighboring countries, such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives, are also resistant to acknowledge India as the region’s “big brother.”

Nuances aside, India’s leaders have sought to be consistent in prioritizing relations with South Asian neighbors, and do not seek neighbors’ territory or to deprive them of their sovereignty. Although India has not pursued a hegemonic or expansionist agenda, that still has not allayed concerns of critical neighbors.

Carrots and sticks

India inherited borders at independence and despite contesting claims with Pakistan to Kashmir, New Delhi has largely left them unchanged. But India’s support of the territorial status quo is not frictionless, and not just with Islamabad, but with others as well. In some cases, like Bangladesh, India resolved the border dispute dating back to 1974 only in 2015. While in Nepal, differing views persist, with Kathmandu issuing a provocative new map in 2020 laying claim to large swaths of northern India. Such territorial challenges complicate India’s proclaimed goal of pursuing an entente cordiale with all its neighbors as it simultaneously jockeys for a more prominent global role.

Although India has a long-standing policy of avoiding military alliances and deploys its military overseas primarily as part of United Nations peacekeeping missions, it has a long history of military engagement in neighborhood conflicts, and not just in wars with Pakistan. The “India factor” often plays a major role in the domestic politics of the country’s neighbors, subsequently with one foreign political actor accusing the other of kowtowing to the region’s largest country.

In Pakistan’s domestic politics, that India factor was present in 2018, when candidate Imran Khan derided his opponent Nawaz Sharif with the slogan – “Modi ka jo yaar hai, Gaddar hai” (“Someone who is a friend of [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi, is a traitor [to Pakistan]”). The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami have often accused Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina Wajid and her Awami League of being too complacent with Indian influence. Sri Lankan and Nepalese politicians, too, occasionally label each other as alternately “pro-India” or “pro-China.”

More on India and South Asia

The most significant and recent manifestation of the “India factor” in a South Asian country’s domestic politics came when the October 2023 elections in Maldives were fought between the incumbent government, championing an “India first” approach, and an opposition that adopted an “India out” policy. The opposition won and new President Mohamed Muizzu traveled to China, not India, in his first trip after the election and subsequently asked Indian troops to leave Maldives.

The outcome of the Maldives election is an example of regional challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertive vision of India’s role in its neighborhood. From New Delhi’s perspective, India is the resident power in South Asia, with the region’s fastest-growing economy, increasing global clout and strong military capabilities. Mr. Modi’s approach has been to utilize multiple carrots and sticks with each of India’s neighbors.

Unlike the first few decades after independence, India is no longer constrained by an inability to provide large amounts of economic assistance or military hardware to its smaller neighbors. Trade, regional connectivity and investment are now not just tools for regional integration but also for ensuring India’s national security and continued preeminence.

India supports and defends regional regimes that keep India’s security interests in mind, even when many in the West may harbor concerns about certain administrations. Over the last decade, the Modi government has reduced non-tariff barriers, encouraged economic investment, addressed neighbors’ concerns about trade, offered lines of credit to upgrade infrastructure and helped with debt relief to positively disposed governments in the region, such as Hasina Wajid’s government in Bangladesh.

As part of its entente cordiale strategy to build closer ties with its neighbors, India has taken a leading role acting as first responder for humanitarian and natural disasters in the region. In 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, India stepped up in the region and provided medical supplies, deployed quick-response medical teams, helped build temporary medical facilities in neighboring countries and provided vaccines. The Indian Navy provided relief during the tsunami of 2004, in anti-piracy missions since 2008 and, more recently with an eye to ensuring its global relevance, in protecting ships in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf from attacks by Houthi militia.


Facts & figures

South Asian countries with elections in 2024

In competition with China, India is now a leading provider of developmental assistance and security aid to all its South Asian neighbors except for Pakistan. Since 1947, India’s cumulative development assistance to the region exceeds $100 billion, of which roughly $33 billion has been allocated in the last decade. Nevertheless, that amount is still far below the roughly $840 billion that China has given to South Asian countries joining its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since 2014.

India realizes that managing a sphere of influence is not primarily a function of telling others what to do, but it involves expending resources that deny space to competitors. India, unlike China, targets its assistance by ensuring the money is based on the priorities of each country’s government and by hiring locals to work on its projects. Despite this, all of India’s neighbors have joined the BRI and China remains their largest trading partner. Some have fallen into China’s debt trap.

What the South Asian future might hold

Economic assistance alone is often insufficient to persuade those in neighboring countries to look favorably upon India, as smaller neighbors of larger countries typically seek to hedge against the larger country with the help of an external actor, in this case, China. Just five years before Maldives elected its openly pro-China and India-skeptic president, the archipelagic state’s economy was in dire straits. Maldives’ debt to China stood at one-fifth of its gross domestic product (GDP) and China showed little interest in renegotiating. Although India, along with the U.S. and its allies, helped Maldives negotiate a way out of that debt crisis, Maldivian voters still voted for the “India Out” candidate.

India is Maldives’ third-largest trading partner and a key source of tourism. But the two countries have recently engaged in a tit-for-tat that initially focused on comparison of tourism destinations and then escalated into summoning of envoys. In December 2023, a row erupted due to derogatory remarks made by three Maldivian deputy ministers about India and Prime Minister Modi. India raised the issue with Maldives, leading to the suspension of the ministers involved.

Sri Lanka, which will elect a new president later this year, was once considered a reliable Indian partner, but its domestic politics have become a contest between pro-China and pro-India politicians, resulting in oscillation in Indian-Sri Lankan ties. In 2022, Sri Lanka defaulted on its international debt and faced food and fuel shortages amid protests that forced the ouster of the country’s pro-China President. India subsequently provided Sri Lanka $4 billion in loans and grants for supplies of fuel, medicine and food.

But, like Maldives, there is no guarantee the financial and humanitarian support would sway Sri Lankan voters. All that New Delhi can do is be prepared for a leader who supports China more than India. Although there are no elections forthcoming in India’s northern neighbor, Nepal, or in the small Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, India has to carefully negotiate India-versus-China sentiments in those mountain countries as well. In late January, India’s Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra visited Bhutan and in early February he visited Nepal signaling that New Delhi is keeping a close eye on developments in both countries.

Pakistan, with which India has fought four wars, continues to pose challenges to India. The recent elections there failed to give any single party an outright national majority, so a coalition government or power-sharing is possible, potentially complicating international relations including those with New Delhi. Pakistan’s domestic economic crisis and political developments may lead the next government to consider reopening trade with India, but whether that will, in the long run, result in enduring peaceful relations with India remains to be seen.

For India, the political system of its neighbors is not as important as the neighbors recognizing and paying heed to India’s interests. Currently, China’s efforts to win friends in South Asia has the potential to encircle India, fast becoming New Delhi’s overriding national security concern. Indian general elections due in spring of this year will therefore determine India’s South-Asia policy going forward.



As of now, the Indian state is likely to continue focusing primarily on national security. This will continue even after the upcoming Indian general elections.

Likely: Continued regional outreach to counter China’s influence

If India’s South Asia neighbors keep India’s interests in mind, India will support the regimes diplomatically and on the economic front as well. This means regional connectivity, trade and lines of credit for building and bolstering infrastructure. If Maldives continues an anti-India policy, then India’s support at the Bretton Woods institutions during debt-restructuring negotiations may be less forthcoming, while Indians will vote with their wallets and further reduce visits to the tourism-dependent nation. On the other hand, in the case of Bangladesh, suppression of human rights and democratic freedoms will be ignored by India, and New Delhi will also try to ensure that economic investment from Western countries or American allies in Asia like Japan continues.

Possible: Economic rebound elusive, China moves in

All of this, however, is contingent on India’s ability to grow its economy and have enough resources for both domestic and foreign obligations. If, however, India’s economy does not pick up speed, then it faces the pre-1990 scenario when New Delhi promised much to its neighbors but was unable to deliver. This will result in many countries looking at China as a more dependable partner. 

Unlikely: Retreat from regional engagement

Irrespective of which party or coalition wins the Indian general elections, it is highly unlikely that the government will move away from its over seven-decade-long policy of realpolitik when it comes to South Asia.

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