2022 was a tumultuous year for South Asia. Unprecedented protests and ongoing political and economic crises rocked the region. There have been leadership changes in several countries, and there has even been an assassination attempt on a former prime minister.
Under the impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, South Asian countries have struggled to cope with the aftermath of foreign exchange reserve depletion. Bhutan’s reserves fell from $1.27 billion in October 2021 to $819.30 billion in May 2022, prompting the government to take measures to curb imports, preventing the outbreak of a full-blown crisis.
However, in Bangladesh, whose economy was doing well until recently, 2022 saw a rapid downturn. Declining foreign exchange reserves forced the government to turn to the IMF, and inflation and rising prices sparked protests that gave opposition parties a strong footing to mobilize the masses against the Awami League government.
Sri Lanka was by far the hardest hit by multiple crises in 2022. A severe foreign exchange crisis caused by decades of economic mismanagement, mounting debt on vanity projects, pandemic-related lockdowns and the Russian invasion of Ukraine forced the island nation to declare sovereign debt default for the first time in April 2022 and bankruptcy soon after. The country, unable to pay for the imports, ran out of food, fuel, fertilizers and medicines, causing tremendous hardship for the people. This sparked unprecedented protests and called for the Rajapaksa family to resign from power.
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What began as an economic crisis quickly turned into a political crisis, culminating in the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and other members of the Rajapaksa clan. While rising tourist arrivals – arrivals rose 42 percent month-on-month in November – and a year-on-year slowdown in the national consumer price index by the end of the year suggested the situation had improved somewhat, the crisis is far from over. With China giving Sri Lanka no concrete debt restructuring commitments, IMF Board approval for a $2.9 billion loan to Colombo seems unlikely to happen any time soon. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government has started to implement IMF bailout requirements, which could spark fresh protests in 2023.
Pakistan struggled with multiple challenges in 2022. Between July and October, it was hit by devastating floods, affecting an estimated 33 million people. The political and economic crisis in the country paralyzed his ability to rehabilitate the displaced.
Prime Minister Imran Khan dominated the news from Pakistan in 2022. His ouster in a no-confidence vote in parliament in April paved the way for the takeover of a coalition government led by Shehbaz Sharif, but the change in leadership did not bring Pakistan any respite from instability. Rather, unrest and insecurity increased as Khan and his supporters took to the streets to push through their demands for early parliamentary elections and an assassination attempt on Khan. There were also concerns that the military, which was the target of Khan’s tirades – he accused the generals of colluding with the US to oust him from power – would lose patience in the face of the former prime minister’s destructive policies. Most worrying for Pakistan was the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) withdrawal from the ceasefire to resume violent attacks across the country. The Afghan Taliban’s reluctance to contain the TTP, which operates out of safe havens in Afghanistan, worsened Pakistan’s troubled relationship with Kabul.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime intensified its repression of the Afghan people, particularly women and girls, leading Amnesty International to describe its violent repression of women’s rights as “death in slow motion”. Throughout the year it became clear that hardliners dominated the regime and that the current regime was no less brutal and misogynistic than the one that ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Unsurprisingly, recognition by the international community has remained elusive in 2022 as well.
India’s state institutions continued to ignore Hindutva hate speech and violence in 2022. Unlike in the past, when most countries, including those with a Muslim majority, ignored anti-Muslim violence in India, in 2022 the Muslim world erupted in angry mass protests and government statements against derogatory remarks by a ruling party official on prime-time television about the prophet.
India continued to slip on various global indices in 2022. His declining performance in protecting democratic rights has drawn criticism abroad. The US-based Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partially free” after cracking down on “dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups and protesters”. India is no longer an “elective democracy” but an “elective autocracy,” said the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute. While “the face of Indian democracy looks healthy in the form of elections, the rest of the body is not,” observed The Economist, drawing attention to the fact that “the bones, tendons and organs of Indian democracy look frighteningly ill”.
India overtook the UK to become the fifth largest economy in the world in 2022. Meanwhile, large parts of the population were starving. Hunger levels in the country are “serious” according to the 2022 Global Hunger Index, which ranks India 107th out of 121 countries, just two rungs above Afghanistan.
The Maldives, meanwhile, has been busy putting out fires caused by the opposition-led India Out campaign. While India’s hold on the archipelago remained strong in 2022, it remains to be seen whether leaders of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party, which has developed close ties with New Delhi, can bury the hatchet to defeat the opposition in next year’s presidential election . The outcome of this election will determine whether India can maintain its hold on the strategically located archipelago.
There was a change of government in Nepal at the end of the year. Although the ruling Nepalese Congress won the most seats, its electoral ally, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center, jumped to the top of a government backed by the Communist Party-turned-friend and foe of Nepal in a politically opportunistic move -Unified Marxist Leninist and other parties. Shifts in Nepal’s foreign policy are to be expected in the new year.
Though 2022 was a difficult year for South Asia, a possible end to the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2023 could bring much-needed respite to people in the region. But implementing the IMF’s conditionality could result in South Asian governments cutting subsidies and breathing new life into protests in the New Year.