In some of the parts of the world that matter most to India, what happened last year and what to watch for in the coming one.
Military chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani had a nice thing going in Pakistan when 2011 began. He had the civilian leadership and Washington jumping to his remote control. Then Abbottabad happened and it all fell apart. His army brethren and the Pakistani public all turned on him. The raid and the later Memogate scandal soured relations with President Asif Ali Zardari.
Kayani struck back. He allowed the US policy to unravel. The ISI’s defunct political wing was revived to push Imran Khan on to the political stage. Journalist Salim Shehzad was murdered. By the end of the year, Zardari was in the crosshairs.
ZARDARI: The embattled president will be at the centre of continued tensions between the judiciary, the military and the executive. The Zardari and Kayani relationship is now one of mistrust. However, the army would still prefer not to rule directly so they need to either bring Zardari to heel or replace him.
AFPAK: The US will withdraw troops from Afghanistan through the year. It will also withdraw funding from Pakistan. But it will still bomb tribal areas at will. A new equilibrium is needed but it’s hard to say what it will be if the US says it will bomb but not pay. And let’s not forget the Taliban negotiations.
ECONOMY: Pakistani half-joke that it’s a race now between their polity and their economy as to which will break first. The Pakistani government’s revenue deficit is completely out of control. Nearly half the debt is financed by worthless bonds that Islamabad sells to itself. Islamabad hopes for a foreign bailout. The US won’t. Saudi Arabia and China don’t want to.
Whatever he is, he is not a diplomat, he is not a liar.” — Pakistani attending an Imran Khan rally.
Person to Watch: Asif Ali Zardari
Nepal is arguably the most difficult of India’s small neighbours. Suspicions regarding New Delhi are the strongest here and Kathmandu’s government is the weakest. This past year saw three governments in Nepal and a continuing deadlock between India and the Maoists over how to merge army and guerrilla force. The Constituent Assembly had to be given another lease of life.
These have all been part of the Indo-Nepal story for the past several years. The difference this time has been the developments of the past four months under the prime ministership of Baburam Bhattarai. The year ended with a resolution to the military-Maoist problem, opening the door to a 2012 turning point. The momentum may continue.
YEAR OF NEPAL: India has been reaching out to bury the hatchet and exchange vows with all its small neighbours. Last year was all about Bangladesh and, if not for Mamata Banerjee’s interference, that would have been in the bag by now. India has never had as good a relationship as it has with Sri Lanka today.
Stabilising the polity of Nepal, however, would add hugely to India’s security. Especially if this went along with a settlement of the long list of bilateral disputes. Most importantly would be a change in the overall tenor of relations between the two countries.
MAOIST HOLD: Bhattarai’s overtures to India has already earned him criticism from hardliners within Maoist ranks. He is helped by the fact that co-leader Prachanda takes the same line. But lower rank grumblings of “surrender” by the high-command could yet tip the apple-cart for India. And this doesn’t even tough the factionalism that afflicts all the other five political formations in Nepal.
CONSTITUTION: After four extensions, no one is hopeful about Nepal completing its charter by the end of May. But keep in mind that its largely done except for clauses on the formation of states and forms of governance. These are big, but not insurmountable.
“I have been given a timeframe of the end of November to complete the peace process and make the first draft of the constitution. I will do my best to meet that target. If I fail in that then I won’t like to continue in this position. “
— Baburam Bhattarai
Person to Watch: Baburam Bhattarai
President Barack Obama rounded off a grim year with a small but symbolic legislative victory over his Republican opponents. He’s had a tough 2011: the lowest ratings for an incumbent president, stubborn jobless rates and a gridlocked Congress. His inability to stop the US from losing its AAA credit rating encapsulated a year of little accomplishment.
His saving grace: his opponents are in worse shape. The Republican presidential candidate race has seen a new face top the polls every few months. Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, Herman Cain have each had 15 minutes of fame and not much more than that.
IRAN: The US’s number one foreign policy question will be what to do about the Shia power’s nuclear weapon ambition. If it fails to stop Tehran, diplomatically or otherwise, the US will hand the Persian Gulf to Iran. Iran will be the region’s sole nuclear power and have Iraq under its wing. The Arab states are watching. Should they seek nukes themselves? Or come to terms with Iran?
RACE: The US will be a superpower in its quadrennial hibernation as it seeks to choose its next president. Obama should limp through if the Republicans continue to self-destruct. But his margin of victory is small. A small thing could spoil it all for him. Which is why he’ll be President Cautious through the year.
CHINDIA: The Obamaites are over their infatuation with China. They are also over the idea India is ready to swoon into their arms. It helped that the Manmohan Singh government was shown to be as paralysed as the Obama administration. But Washington is likely to be toug­her with China and more realistic about India, partly because presidential polls mandate that it will.
“Most people want to see India and the US in an American kind of marriage — always holding hands, demonstrably kissing and being in love. It’s not like that in an Indian marriage — when both partners quietly go about their business without making much of the relationship.” -— Indian diplomat on the bilateral relationship
Person to Watch: Barack Obama
This should have been China’s moment. The West on its knees. India nowhere on the scene. The Europeans begging for a few billion yuan. But Beijing behaved anything like a superpower in the making this past year.
On the foreign policy side, it struggled to repair relations with almost all of its neighbours. It may have restrained itself with India and Japan, but it still sought to browbeat Vietnam and the Philippines. On the domestic side, Beijing began seeing democrats under the bed. The Arab spring triggered the worst anti-dissident crackdown in China since 1989. Ai Weiwei, incandescent Tibetan monks and restrictions on the sale of jasmine flowers were what mattered most in Beijing’s list of priorities.
SUCCESSION: It is now clear that Xi Jinping will replace Hu Jintao as party general-secretary in 2013 and Li Keqiang will succeed Wen Jiabao as premier. Xi should began opening his wings through 2012, visiting countries China rates as important. What is not yet certain is who will hold seats three to 12 in the new Beijing setup. Only then will it be clear who Xi will have to cut deals with.
SLOWDOWN: China has been trying to slow its economy for some time. This coming year’s growth will fall below 10 per cent for the first time in a decade. But Beijing may not be so happy.that this has happened. If Europe tanks, it will lose its largest export market. If the US follows, it will lose its second-largest market. The Chinese response in the past has been to open up its coffers and build mountains of infrastructure and houses. It would prefer not to do so again as this would delay the structural reforms it wants to carry out.
SOFT-SPEECH: After a few years of unpredictable foreign policy that has cost China dearly in the Asian region, Xi will have an opportunity to show that these were all just flashes in a pan. China claims to be a different kind of power, that it doesn’t seek hegemony or empire. Its actions, however, have been anything but. Next year will allow the Middle Kingdom to show a more middling foreign policy face.
“We do not want a blood-stained GDP”— People’s Daily
Person to Watch: Xi Jinping
With inputs from: Imtiaz Ahmad, Yashwant Raj, Reshma Patil, Utpal Parashar & Pramit Pal Chaudhuri