Big Picture

Forecast 2016: Cardinal Transitions

21 Mar, 2016    ·   5003

Prof Varun Sahni outlines key transitions currently underway or expected in 2016 in countries of significance to India

In 2016, India is likely to hit a ‘sweet spot’ and come to be seen – despite a host of domestic debilities and external vulnerabilities – as an island of growth and stability. This year, several countries whose internal dynamics are acutely relevant to India will undergo internal transitions of one sort or another. Leading the pack are the three countries that constitute India’s three cardinal external relationships: the US, China, and Pakistan. Three others – Myanmar, Afghanistan and Nepal – in India’s immediate neighbourhood too are experiencing protracted political transitions. Finally, there is an important evolving relationship with Brazil, a country three oceans and two hemispheres away that is experiencing severe internal turbulence and could well be heading towards transition.

The US
The 2016 US presidential election is turning out to be one of the most unusual since the 1948 Truman-Dewey matchup. It is increasingly expected that Hillary Clinton will face Donald Trump after the primaries; but much could yet happen to overturn this expectation. Trump, Clinton, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders all speak to sectional constituencies that feel scared, angry and ignored. As in the late 1970s, many Americans feel humiliated and demoralised about what they see as their country’s decline in world affairs. When a similar mood prevailed in 1980, an unconventional candidate, Ronald Reagan, was elected. The world could once again witness an unexpected electoral outcome in the 2016 US presidential elections. The US has not been as internally divided as today since the Civil War. These divisions are not only causing electoral unpredictability but also policy uncertainty and even paralysis. Predicting the contours of Washington's policies under a Clinton administration is at least a plausible venture; but under a Trump administration, who can tell what will happen?

The ongoing rebooting of China is equally important. Change will not be easy for a $12 trillion economy comprising 1.35 billion people. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream is centenarian: making China a moderately well-off society by 2021 and a fully developed nation by 2049, i.e. the 100th anniversaries of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) respectively. Economically, rebooting China is essential: after three decades of 10 per cent annual growth rates, China is now a middle income country that must transform its export-led growth and government-led investment model to a more sustainable lower growth trajectory that relies on internal demand and consumption-led growth.

Transformation has a sharp political edge under Xi. The anti-corruption campaign has severely disrupted tacit understandings across all levels of the CPC, especially in the higher echelons. So far, the only winners appear to be the so-called ‘princelings’, children of first generation CPC revolutionaries. As political power is increasingly being monopolised by a single leader, the orderly decadal transitions of the administrations of former Chinese Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao may no longer serve as a template for the future. Certainly, the ‘collective leadership’ of the Hu years is already a thing of the past.

Pakistan too will experience a significant transition this year. The country’s Army Chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, is scheduled to retire on 29 November. He has garnered immense popularity in the Pakistani society and across the political spectrum by taking the battle to groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). He has characterised the TTP as an even greater threat to Pakistan than India is. Such characterisation was a clear departure from his predecessors as also from his own biography: his maternal uncle and elder brother were killed in wars against India. Although several voices advocate that he should be given an extension, Sharif has insisted that he will leave in November.

Given the monopoly Pakistan’s military has over the country’s overall policies related to India, the Kashmir issue, and nuclear weapons, from an Indian perspective, the identity of Sharif’s successor is a significant matter. The senior-most lieutenant general, Maqsood Ahmad, is currently a military adviser at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Most likely, he will retire from the army in January 2017, as will three other lieutenant-generals who follow Ahmed in seniority. Thus, Sharif’s likely successors are lieutenant-generals Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed or Javed Iqbal Ramday, currently commanders of 2 Corps (Multan) and 31 Corps (Bahawalpur) respectively. However, there is a long tradition of supersession when army chiefs change in Pakistan. Sharif’s successor could be someone lower on the seniority list, such as Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, currently director-general, Inter-Services Intelligence. Both the identity and orientation of Sharif’s successor would be important factors in New Delhi-Islamabad relations.

Ostensibly, the ongoing political transition in Myanmar is the least problematic of the three other transitions in India’s immediate neighbourhood that have the potential to pose challenges for Indian policy. Electoral democracy has certainly triumphed in Myanmar. The next crucial stage will be for a democratic system to provide effective governance. Several factors could yet upset systemic stability. Keeping Myanmar military onside during the transition is critical; and with 25 per cent of the votes in the parliament, the military can block any constitutional amendment. There are huge pent up expectations in Myanmar’s population and, after receiving such a massive electoral majority, the National League for Democracy government will be expected to produce visible results soon. The ethnic minorities' issue, especially of the Rohingyas, could bring significant external pressure on the young democratic government. Finally, Htin Kyaw as president and Aung San Suu Kyi as the power behind the throne could be a feasible arrangement in the immediate future, but in the longer term, this could kindle the problem of dual centres of power.

In 2016, Afghanistan too may face the problem of dual power centres. The US-brokered arrangement of September 2014 that resulted in Ashraf Ghani as Afghanistan’s president and Abdullah Abdullah as the country’s chief executive officer has worked much better than most had expected. The Taliban’s so-called annual ‘spring offensive’ can be expected from mid-April. However, US President Barack Obama’s October 2015 decision to maintain the current force of 9,800 through most of 2016, then begin drawing down to 5,500 late in early 2017, works to Kabul’s favour. That the Taliban and the Islamic State are now targeting each other adds to Afghanistan’s perturbation and violence but further strengthens the government. India’s core challenge in Afghanistan will remain the same: maintaining its high levels of development assistance while its personnel and citizens continue to be specifically targeted by the Taliban and other insurgents.

The most prolonged and troubled transition in India’s regional neighbourhood has been in Nepal. New Delhi’s role in this transition also marks one of the biggest failures of Indian foreign policy in the recent years. In part, Kathmandu’s problem has been one that it shares with other relatively small countries: the tendency of having a difficult time acknowledging and designing for ethno-cultural diversity. Sri Lanka is another South Asian example of this tendency. However, Nepal’s protracted transition, particularly its constitution-making travails, also highlight the difficulties of framing a constitution in an era of mass politics and intrusive mass media. The Madhesi problem is likely to remain unresolved through 2016, with continuing negative spill-over effects on India. Given India’s organic ethno-cultural and ecological linkages with Nepal, this is unfortunate but unavoidable.

Brazil – India’s new partner in the BRICS and other ventures – is experiencing a year of Olympian discontent. The economy is shrinking as the recession cuts deep: a negative growth rate of 3.9 per cent is expected in 2016, albeit it could be as severe as 6 per cent. The world still expects Brazilians to rally around and throw a big party when the Olympic Games begin in Rio de Janeiro in mid-2016. However, these days, the mood in Brazil is particularly grim. Investigations of corruption in Petrobras, the massive state-owned energy company, have led to prosecutions and indictments that have now reached the highest levels of government. The speaker of the Chamber of Deputies in Congress has been indicted for corruption. Shockingly, corruption charges have now tainted former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the patron saint of the Brazilian left and mentor of incumbent President Dilma Rousseff. Calls for Rousseff’s resignation are increasing and there are moves to begin impeachment proceedings in Congress. Rousseff’s impeachment is unlikely as she still has the support of most Workers Party (PT) and Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB) legislators. However, it is sobering to consider the possibility that the Rousseff administration is de facto at an end and will limp on as a lame duck till 2018. Most worryingly, the possibility of massive public unrest on ideological right-left lines cannot be discounted.

Red Herrings
In this analysis of key transitions, situations of stasis have obviously been ignored. However, some cases of supposed stability should also be problematised. For instance, it is unclear as to how long incumbent Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party will be able to marginalise their longstanding traditional rivals, Khaleda Zia and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or continue the process of retributive justice against the perpetrators of the 1971 independence war genocide. Likewise, although he still seems to be firmly in the driving seat in Russia, in 2016, some searching questions will be asked about President Vladimir Putin’s staying power.