Show caption Supporters of Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, at a rally in Islamabad. Photograph: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters Opinion The Guardian view on strongmen and straw men: south Asian crises over Russia’s war Editorial It may be a conceit to think that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will shape the contours of a coming wider global struggle between autocracy and democracy Tue 5 Apr 2022 19.23 BST Share on Facebook
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Flying from Islamabad to Colombo gives a bird’s-eye view of the fallout from war over the subcontinent. The three nations under the route are all governed by nationalists who won office by trading in populism. Having gained power, such politicians tend to have a messianic faith in their capacity to effect sweeping change. This belief is being tested, perhaps to destruction, in south Asian democracies with a combined population of 1.6 billion people.
Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan – who was in Moscow as the tanks rolled into Ukraine – claimed last week that the US had “threatened” him and tried to instigate regime change. Mr Khan has been at loggerheads with the west since Pakistan abstained in the UN resolution condemning Moscow’s attack. Over the weekend the nation’s army – long considered the power behind the throne – openly sided with Washington. Mr Khan has refused to leave quietly. Instead of facing a no-confidence vote that he would have almost certainly lost, he precipitated a political crisis by dissolving parliament. Pakistan’s judges now have the casting vote on the prime minister’s fate.
At the other end of the flightpath is Sri Lanka’s hardline president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He imposed a state of emergency to forestall a popular revolt. With four brothers in the cabinet, the Rajapaksas dominate Sri Lankan politics. Their supremacy is largely down to the damaging polarisation of the country along religious and ethnic lines after a bloody civil war. Mr Rajapaksa’s quixotic economic policies came unstuck when the war in Ukraine sent energy and commodity prices soaring. There is little sign of rational measures to halt the downward spiral.
South Asia’s biggest strongman is India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. Like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, Mr Modi has remained neutral on the war – refusing to condemn Vladimir Putin and sidestepping US-led sanctions. Delhi is caught in a bind. Despite clashes along their shared border, India’s trade with China has set new records. While the past decade has seen India deepen security ties with the US to balance Beijing, Russia still provides about half of India’s arms imports. This dependence might explain why, when Indian students in Ukraine were being killed by Russian bombs, Mr Modi’s ministers blamed them for being in harm’s way.
Mr Modi is quiet about his true intentions. This raises hopes in Moscow of Indian support, hopes in Beijing that Delhi might forsake Washington, and concerns in the west that India’s prime minister puts a premium on his nation’s immediate interests rather than aspirations to be a natural ally. This may heighten Mr Modi’s sense of India’s difference, and see him embrace greater self-reliance. This would be welcome if his nation’s economic performance had been helped by his policymaking. But his penchant for dramatic gestures has stymied India’s rise.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could shape the contours of a coming wider global struggle between autocracy and democracy. History might side with that perspective – but it seems a straw man argument in a region where the slide into rightwing, nationalist populism should be, right now, a bigger concern.