Southasiasphere is our roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs, now out every two weeks. If you are a member, you will automatically receive links to the new episodes in your inbox. If you are not yet a member, you can still get it for free by signing up here.
In this episode, we talk about the assembly election and by-election results in India, and examine growing trepidation in Bangladesh about a 2017 deal signed between the Bangladesh Power Development Board and the Adani Group. In “Around Southasia in 5 minutes” we’re talking about the closure of the Dainik Dinkal newspaper in Bangladesh; Pakistan on the economic precipice and a recent loan from China that’s bought the country some time; shifts in the Nepali ruling coalition requiring a second vote of confidence for prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal; a new report on forced demolitions, arbitrary detention and torture in Tibet; and the Delhi High Court upholding the controversial Agnipath scheme for recruitment to the Indian Army. For “Bookmarked”, we’ll be talking about Prasanna Vithanage’s feature film Gaadi, which discusses caste discrimination in Ceylon at a time when courtiers plotted to overthrow the Kandyan king Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe.
Bangladesh’s BNP fights to make a political comeback
Rebound or relapse: Debt restructuring in a time of crisis
A plot twist makes Pushpa Kamal Dahal prime minister of Nepal
The podcast episode is now available on Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Youtube
This episode was recorded on 6 March, 2023
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone and welcome to Southasiasphere, our fortnightly roundup of news events and regional affairs. I’m Raisa and I’m joined by my colleague and fact checker and researcher, Saheli. Hi Saheli!
Saheli Wikramanayake: Hi Raisa!
RW: This week for our big stories, we’re unpacking the assembly elections and by-election results in India, and examining growing trepidation in Bangladesh about a 2017 deal signed between the Bangladesh Power Development Board and the Adani group, in light of recent investigative reports.
In Around Southasia in 5 minutes we’re talking about the closure of the Dainik Dinkal newspaper in Bangladesh, Pakistan’s economic precipice and a recent loan from China that’s bought the country some time, shifts in the Nepali ruling coalition requiring a second vote of confidence for Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a new report on forced demolitions, arbitrary detention and torture in Tibet and the Delhi High Court upholding the Agnipath scheme. For Bookmarked, we’ll be talking about Prasanna Vithanage’s Gaadi.
Let’s begin with the election results.
[Audio of news clips from Nagaland and Tamil Nadu]
On 2 March, election results were announced for assembly elections in Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya, while vote counting began for by-elections in Arunachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.
In the Northeast, exit polls predicted wins for BJP in Nagaland and Tripura, mostly because of their alliances with the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party and the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura respectively, with Meghalaya being more closely fought due to the major parties contesting separately. The polls proved to be accurate. In Nagaland, almost all parties extended their support to the BJP-NDPP alliance, with the coalition winning 37 seats in the 60-member house. In Tripura, the BJP-IFTT alliance won 33 seats with the Tipra Motha bagging 13 seats, and the Left-Congress alliance won 14 seats. In Meghalaya, the BJP have said they’ll align with the National People’s Party in order to form a government. Analysts noted that the BJP had been dismissed in the Northeast less than a decade ago, but now led an important role in the region’s politics. However, it’s important to note that the BJP won less seats compared to the last election in 2018 and they also saw a slight drop in vote share. The rise of the Tipra Motha Party in Tripura is also interesting and it shows how regional parties continue to shape national politics.
In the south of India, all eyes were on Tamil Nadu, where the contest was mainly between Congress candidate E V K S Elangovan, who is contesting with the DMK’s support, and AIADMK’s Thennarasu. With a total of 77 candidates from different political affiliations, it was a stiff contest but Elangovan emerged as the clear winner. The BJP won in Arunachal Pradesh and in Chinchwad, Pune, but lost their stronghold in Kasba Peth to Congress – this marks the first time Congress has won the Kasba Peth seat in 30 years. In Jharkhand, the BJP-backed AJSU won in the Ramgarh by-polls. In Sagardighi, West Bengal, Congress candidate Bayron Biswas polled the most votes, ending the 13-year Trinamool Congress regime in the area. In general, the TMC’s plans to expand beyond West Bengal faced a little bit of a setback as it was unable to win seats in Tripura and won just five seats in Meghalaya.
SW: In Bangladesh, there’s growing consternation over the country’s ties with the Indian Adani group. The Daily Star reported that a 2017 deal between the Bangladesh Power Development Board and the Adani group, which included a contract to build a coal power plant in Jharkhand, that would then supply power to Bangladesh, was deeply lopsided. Once it comes into operation next month, Bangladesh is going to essentially be paying Adani taxes while Adani saves costs. It’s estimated that Adani is going to save as much as USD 1 billion thanks to it being declared a Special Economic Zone as part of the agreement. It’ll also save on things like import duties and Bangladesh will be forced to honour the agreement even if Adani breaches its contract. Now the Daily Star notes that this whole deal can be seen as a gift to Adani and is all thanks to the group’s close ties with the Indian prime minister, Modi.
On this, a recent Al Jazeera report found that Modi had gone out of his way to make an exception for the Adani group, allowing the group to mine from a block holding more than 450 million tonnes of coal in one of India’s densest forest patches. This happened after it was found that coal blocks were being illegally allocated to state-government-owned companies, who in turn were handing over the mining to private companies in secret contracts. In 2014, the Supreme Court cancelled allocations to 204 coal blocks, but Adani’s mining activities continued unfettered. This is particularly ironic as Modi rose to power in 2014 on an anti-corruption wave, and singled out the Congress Party for its corruption and crony capitalism in handing out coal blocks to private companies. So this is an issue that has a long history and across political parties.
We have published a piece on corruption in Bangladesh’s energy sector, so do check that out in the episode notes.
And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
RW: In Bangladesh, there have been rallies to protest the closure of the Dainik Dinkal newspaper, published by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Critics say this is only the latest move by Sheikh Hasina’s government to crush political dissent. Dhaka district authorities ordered the paper to close in December but the publication appealed to the Press Council, which upheld the ruling. The council said the paper’s publisher Tarique Rahman, the acting chief of the BNP, was violating printing laws as he was based outside the country and wanted on criminal charges.
[Audio from journalists’ protests against the closure of Dainik Dinkal]
Rahman says that he appointed a new publisher, which the press council doesn’t accept. Hasina’s government has repeatedly arrested BNP members – and its key to note that there have recently been a string of rallies piggybacking off public discontent on the economic crisis and leading up to elections in 2024, so these factors undoubtedly played a role in the closure of the newspaper.
We did publish a piece on the BNP fighting to make a political comeback for Himal Briefs, so do check that out in the episode notes.
SW: Meanwhile, while Pakistan teeters on the economic precipice as it awaits the release of the IMF funds, the rupee fell to a record low of PKR 284 per USD on 2 March after interest rate hikes announced by Pakistan’s central bank. The China Development Bank has agreed to loan Pakistan USD 700 million to weather the economic storm, raising concerns as Pakistan already owes China and Chinese commercial banks USD 30 billion. In total Pakistan owes around USD 100 billion, meaning it owes China just under a third of its overall debt, but China remains Pakistan’s single largest creditor and tends to charge relatively high interest rates. This is similar to the situation in Sri Lanka which is also awaiting IMF funding, amid reports that China is reluctant to restructure its debt, instead offering Sri Lanka a two-year debt moratorium. News of the loan came a day after Pakistan’s National Assembly passed a bill to increase tax revenue, a key condition for unlocking IMF funding. In January, we hosted a Southasian Conversation on debt restructuring that included perspectives from Pakistan and Sri Lanka – so do revisit that and look out for it in the episode notes.
RW: Free Tibet and Tibet Watch released a report on forced demolitions, torture and arbitrary detention in Drago County, Tibet between October 2021 to June 2022. The report recounts the demolition of a Buddhist school in Sengdeng village which also taught Tibetan, English and Chinese. Residents were forced to demolish the school themselves. Tibetans were also forced to demolish two giant Buddha statues and prayer wheels by Chinese officials. Those who objected to the demolitions were detained in a re-education centre that hadn’t been identified before, where they were subject to torture.
SW: In India, the Delhi High Court upheld the validity of the Agnipath short-term military recruitment scheme, which allows for the recruitment of between 45,000 and 50,000 soldiers between 17 and 21 years to the armed forces, a year. Only 25 percent of those recruited will be allowed to continue for another 15 years, which has led to concerns about rising unemployment. The government’s reasoning is that they want to make the permanent forces much leaner. In dismissing the pleas to revert to an earlier scheme the High Court said the Agnipath scheme was in the national interest.
RW: Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal faces a second vote of confidence after the CPN-UML pulled out of the governing coalition, as Dahal decided to back the Congress candidate for presidential elections, which slated to be held 9 March. Now the coalition was always on shaky ground as Dahal joined the CPN-UML mainly because Congress didn’t back him to get the prime minister post first as per their agreement. He’s probably still got the majority in Parliament as Congress is likely to back him now. But he will have to take up the vote of confidence again according to Nepal’s constitution, and that may delay the presidential polls.
The changeover also impacted the UNHRC delegation flying to Geneva, with Foreign Minister Bimala Rai Paudyal being asked not to fly at the last minute as the CPN-UML was pulling out of the governing alliance. On the agenda at the UNHRC session was justice for insurgency-era atrocities through a legal amendment to the Enforced Disappearances Enquiry, Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act, which initially drew controversy as it allowed for amnesty for serious crimes including murder. Nepal promised to change this, but victims, including the Conflict Victims Common Platform, said they were sceptical of government commitments.
Do check out our recently published edition of Himal Briefs on the plot twist that led to Dahal gaining the prime minister post in the episode notes.
And now for our next segment, Bookmarked.
RW: Saheli, do you have any recommendations?
SW: Yeah, I do. So, this episode I’d like to talk about Gaadi, directed by Prasanna Vithanage, which is currently screening in Sri Lankan cinemas. Gaadi is set in 1814, at a time of shifting power. The movie opens with a conversation between British governor John D’Oyly and Ehelepola Adigar, a courtier, where they are negotiating for the deposal of the king, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, who is resented by Ehelepola and others for his ties to South India. But this film is notable because it focuses on caste oppression through the fate of one family, who are forced to choose between death and marrying into a lower caste, a choice which apparently does have some basis in historical fact, although the film doesn’t exactly mirror historical events. The film looks at the roots of caste discrimination during that period and in that sense presents a slightly different story than the nationalistic stories that are often told about this period.
[Audio from Gaadi trailer]
RW: Yeah, I watched it recently as well. The scene that I kept returning to was the one where there’s a bridge and the family is asked to either jump off it and choose death, or to marry someone of the Rodiya caste. In that scene, Iranganie Serasinghe who is such an iconic actress, is so noble and dignified as she goes to her death, but then you realise that these people are choosing this rather than marrying someone of the Rodiya caste. Caste discrimination is so ingrained that most of them choose death rather than lower their own status. I did think that it could have delved a lot deeper into this caste discrimination aspect.
If I remember correctly, before the credits they say that once the British came in and colonial rule began, the caste system ended, which is most definitely not true and you see aspects of it perpetuating even today. I was thinking when I was watching, you could argue that even for example the Rajapaksa family in their campaigns, at least Mahinda, centred farming and always talks about himself as “the son of the soil”. This does link back to him being from the Govigama caste – that’s something the family, including the sons, have always foregrounded in their political campaigns, which shows that caste does continue in the present day. So I did think that it could go a lot deeper into that.
There was also some criticism that the characters never transcended their caste. The princess called Tikiri never really gels with the person that she ends up marrying, and that’s because that mindset is just so ingrained, perhaps, that she can’t break out of it. But what I found interesting is, there’s this part where he’s stealing things to help them fend for themselves, she almost looks like she expects it to happen and she doesn’t react, and the way she treats him shows that she still very much considers herself to be above him. When he’s helping another king to escape, he hands back the money that they drop, and that’s when she looks at him with a little bit of respect. At the end, which I’m not sure about, she decides she’s going to help him and she’s going to accept him and continue the survival of the tribe. So I was a bit torn in that I felt it was reinforcing those discriminations in some ways and it could have gone deeper into that. But I think it’s a good starting conversation and I hope there are more films that tackle this from a historical perspective. We will be linking the trailer in the episodes, so do watch out for that.
And on that note, that’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Bye!