In biggest election year ever, politics may impact India’s foreign policy the most

Around 60 countries, more than a fourth of all countries and populations will hold important polls in 2024, including South Asia, Global South and P-5 countries

December 30, 2023 09:23 pm | Updated April 10, 2024 04:00 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with USA President Joe Biden, Prime Minister of Australia Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida during the Quad Leaders’ Summit, in Hiroshima, Japan on May 20, 2023.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with USA President Joe Biden, Prime Minister of Australia Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida during the Quad Leaders’ Summit, in Hiroshima, Japan on May 20, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

Domestic policy, rather than geopolitical events, could be a major factor in foreign policy in 2024, given that more than a fourth of the world, in terms of population and number of countries, will go to vote during the year. For India, which will hold the world’s largest election, the diplomatic calendar and focus will be decided by countries in the neighbourhood, global powers and major countries in the Global South, all of which will hold parliamentary or presidential elections next year.

According to the U.S.-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ Election Guide, at least 60 countries around the world will see parliamentary, presidential or major Assembly elections over the next 12 months, with a likely population of more than two billion people casting votes. International commentators have called 2024 the “biggest election year” ever.

To begin with, India’s neighbourhood will see the impact of elections in the first few weeks of 2024 itself, with polls in Bangladesh scheduled for January 7, the second round of general election in Bhutan on January 9 and an election in Pakistan scheduled for February 8. The election in Bangladesh appears to be a “foregone conclusion” in favour of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL), with the largest Opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, deciding to boycott the polls. The BNP has alleged the electoral process would not be free and fair and most BNP leaders are in jail. A columnist in the Bangladesh daily The Daily Star referred to the situation as “the rule of the AL, for the AL and by the AL”.

This will be a boost for Delhi-Dhaka ties, given PM Hasina’s close ties with India, but hiccups could be caused if the U.S. persists with its sanctions policy citing democratic processes in Bangladesh after the election as well, and the Indian government may have to step in.

In Bhutan, outgoing Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering has already been ousted in the first round of election, and the contest is now between former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and former top-bureaucrat Pema Chewang’s new Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP). While both will be inclined favourably towards India, Delhi will watch the new Bhutanese government’s moves with China most closely, as it picks up the boundary delimitation agreement signed with Beijing in September. The larger issue will be Bhutan’s Gelephu Mindfulness City (GMC) mega-project announced by its fifth King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in December, which will need major funding, investment and development by the government and Indian private infrastructure, health, and IT companies. 

Pakistan’s election, like Bangladesh’s, appears one-sided at present, with former PM Imran Khan and most of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party’s top leadership in prison, even though they remain popular. The likely winner, three-time PM Nawaz Sharif, has already made it clear that he intends to improve ties with Pakistan’s neighbours, especially India, emphasising at an election rally that it was during his previous tenures that “Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan”.

Sri Lanka, still grappling with economic issues but on a more stable wicket due to support from India, is due to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in 2024, which could change Colombo’s course with Delhi too.

India has already felt the impact of elections on ties with global powers, especially the five permanent members or P-5 countries of the UN Security Council (UNSC). U.S. President Joseph Biden declined this month to attend the Republic Day parade as its chief guest, for which Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invited him in September during the G-20 summit. U.S. officials have indicated Mr. Biden’s own party primaries, beginning with New Hampshire primary on January 23 and his entire campaign for the election in November 2024, as well as the U.S. Congress’s crucial session at the time mean he will be unable to visit in January. This also leaves India with a very tight window to host the Quad summit, possibly in February, with Mr. Biden, Japan PM Fumio Kishida and Australian PM Anthony Albanese.

Also read: How is the poll year shaping up for India, the U.S.? | Explained 

India’s election season will kick in by March, and subsequently, the U.S. campaign season will be in full swing. Furthermore, if the U.S. race is won by Mr. Biden’s likely rival former President Donald Trump, India and the world will prepare for a return to very choppy waters in ties. China doesn’t hold general elections, but its next geopolitical move could be decided by Taiwan’s general election on January 13, amidst a threat from Beijing that it seeks to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland, and any imprint on the electoral outcome could lead to major tensions with global ramifications.

Russian presidential election, expected to hand President Vladimir Putin a fifth term, is due from March 15-17, and Mr. Putin’s confidence over the outcome was evident as he met External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in Moscow last week, and invited PM Modi to visit Russia. He made the point that Russia would remain friendly to anyone who wins in India. “We wish success to our friends in India. We believe we will maintain our traditional friendly ties in any alignment of political forces,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Jaishankar, according to a transcript of his remarks issued by the Kremlin.

With the U.K., where the Parliament is set to be dissolved on or before December 19 next year, New Delhi will be watching most closely for an opportunity to seal the Free Trade Agreement under discussion with PM Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party government. However, the government would also need to reach out to the Opposition, especially given Labour Party’s current lead in polls, so as to ensure that the FTA is not reversed by a new government post election. 

Also read: What may 2024 hold for the economy? | Explained 

France, another member of the UNSC, is not due for election, but the 700-plus seat European Parliament will head for elections in June 2024, and the result will be closely watched as 400 million from 27 European countries go to vote - with worries of a right-wing resurgence pushing tougher immigration policies as well as a less flexible position on the India-EU Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA).

Finally, New Delhi will be watching developments in the Global South, after a big outreach to the grouping in 2023, holding two summits around the G-20 Summit as well as ensuring the induction of the African Union to the G-20. Much of the future trajectory of ties could be decided by the outcomes of elections in some of the South’s biggest powers, including Indonesia, where President Jokowi is stepping down after completing two terms, as well as parliamentary elections in Mexico, South Africa and Iran, all of which will have a big impact in their regions.

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