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  Opinion   Columnists  02 Jan 2024  K.C. Singh | 2024, a year of elections, will be full of challenges

K.C. Singh | 2024, a year of elections, will be full of challenges

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh.
Published : Jan 2, 2024, 12:43 am IST
Updated : Jan 2, 2024, 12:43 am IST

The Houthis have successfully rendered the Red Sea as a “no-go” zone for global shipping.

 The "CMA CGM Palais Royal", the world's largest container's ship powered by natural gas, sails in the bay of Marseille, southern France, on December 14, 2023. Ships belonging to CMA-CGM have returned to the Red Sea following attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen, and those belonging to Maersk will do the same, the two shipping giants said on December 27, 2023. (Photo by Christophe SIMON / AFP)

The year 2024 brings multiple challenges, some quite unique. For one, over 40 countries will face national elections, starting with Bangladesh and Taiwan in January. The trail then runs through Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Russia and then the European Union nations, plus Britain and the United States. The UK must hold elections before January 2025 while the American presidential polls is due to be held on November 5.

These elections vary from controlled ones like in Russia to some highly polarised ones in India, Europe and the United States. But three challenges will carry over from 2023. The Ukraine war has reached a stalemate phase, with Russia projecting the lack of Ukrainian gains in its counter-offensive as a defeat. President Vladimir Putin needs this as his presidential election approaches and he bags another term.

The other factor is, of course, the Gaza conflict and Hamas’ existential, no-holds barred fight against Israel’s all-out attack. So far, the conflict has remained localised, except for sporadic attacks by Iranian allies in a pincer move by Hezbollah from the north in Lebanon and by the Houthis from the south in Yemen. The Hezbollah attacks have been largely stymied by the US naval flotilla in the eastern Mediterranean though they have deployed south of Litani river, forbidden under UN negotiated terms. The Houthis have successfully rendered the Red Sea as a “no-go” zone for global shipping. Freight and insurance rates are mounting as ships begin taking the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. With an Iranian general in Syria killed in Israeli bombing, escalation by Iran cannot be ruled out. Especially as Iran has announced the boosting of its nuclear enrichment programme. Israel has always maintained that it would not allow Iran to acquire strategic nuclear capability, meaning nuclear devices.

The third troublesome element persisting from 2023 is the state of the Chinese economy and the domestic pressures on President Xi Jinping to restore economic growth and robust employment for youth. An authoritarian Communist state which leverages the absence of freedoms by providing consistent and buoyant growth can resort to jingoistic actions abroad if the social contract fails at home. The first test will be the Chinese reaction to the expected victory of the current Taiwanese vice-president, Lai Chingte, who advocates distancing from China, short of pronouncing outright independence.

China and Russia would keenly observe the US presidential election. Russian President Vladimir Putin would favour a Donald Trump win, knowing his boasts about ending the Ukraine war quickly. The implication is to have Ukraine accept the status quo, including perhaps abandoning membership of Nato. That is why Mr Putin appears to be prepared for another summer of war, hoping that Mr Trump’s victory will lead to a Ukrainian capitulation. China, on the other hand, would prefer Mr Trump’s defeat as their experience from his first term is of unpredictable confrontation. That may also be a factor in China’s timing to implement its proclaimed desire to annex Taiwan, by force if necessary. A predictable Joe Biden would appear to be a better person with his finger on the nuclear button than an erratic Donald Trump. The question thus lingers whether China may prefer to move against Taiwan with Mr Biden in power?

South Block may also have concluded that Russia is emerging largely unscathed from its Ukraine adventure. L’affaire Pannun, uncovering an Indian agency’s alleged complicity in a plot to kill American citizens, is souring relations with Washington. What better way to warn the Americans to drop the issue than by having external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar undertake a five-day Russia trip. Russian coincidentally is his compulsory foreign language, which he learnt during his first posting in Moscow in the early 1980s.

With its economy humming along healthily, India is well placed to traverse the destabilised world, provided that the Gaza conflict does not suddenly spread to the Gulf. The Bangladeshi election, despite its flawed execution, should have a pro-India Sheikh Hasina continuing in power. Bhutan will come under renewed pressure to settle its border issues separately with China. The Maldives, after the initial anti-India policy decisions by the newly elected Islamist government, may settle down to more balanced relations with both India and China.

The Pakistan general election in February should throw up a Nawaz Sharif government, which a re-elected Indian government may decide to engage. One of the Pakistani pre-conditions has been to restore the status quo ante in Jammu and Kashmir before talks can be resumed. India’s Supreme Court has in any case ruled that the statehood of J&K must be restored in 2024. India needs to learn one major lesson from the Gaza war — that peace temporarily obtained by the use of security forces is never sustainable. Rising attacks by militants in that UT, despite the Union government’s claims of normalcy, are signs of trouble lurking below the surface.

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi wins a third term, as is generally expected, he would need to weigh all these factors to ensure a great legacy.

The other electoral test is in Europe. Elections to the European Parliament are due in June. A rightward shift in many nations may also get reflected in that election. If Donald Trump was to win in the US and the European Parliament gets dominated by a rabble-rousing xenophobic lot, the post-Second World War liberal order will face a serious challenge. The victory of right-wing Marine le Pen in the French presidential election and an increase of the seats of the Nazism- inspired Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany’s Bundestag (parliament) cannot be ruled out.

Thus, the year 2024 marks an inflexion point when the accepted liberal democratic order gets tested. In India, a massive win by the BJP can equip the party to move India more firmly towards a majoritarian theocratic state. In the United Kingdom, 14 years of Conservative rule is likely to end with the Labour Party capturing power. In Poland, the centrist alliance has displaced the right-wing government. In Latin America, while Brazil saw the return of a socialist order, in Argentina the reverse happened with right-wing victory.

Thus, the churn is global as immigration, economic challenges and a neo-Cold War are pitting an accepted liberal model against various forms of authoritarian, theocratic, Communist or majoritarian models of governance. If the centre has to hold, the US, Europe and India, in that order, must ensure that the regressive forces do not win.

Tags: houthi rebels, russian-ukraine war, donald trump