In focusing this issue of SA Perspectives on South Asia’s current election season, we have also highlighted the challenges facing the Biden Administration as it seeks to balance its stated support for democracy and human rights with the pursuit of broader regional interests. It should come as no surprise to those who follow South Asia that democratic institutions and practices remain fragile despite the outward trappings of elections. In particular, Washington’s response to flawed elections in Pakistan and Bangladesh has elicited criticism from across the political spectrum and has seemingly opened the door for its rivals to expand their influence. The United States also appears uncertain how to balance growing concerns about the health of India’s democracy with its determination to strengthen ties with New Delhi as part of a broader Indo-Pacific strategy to check China’s rise. As if these challenges were not enough, developments in South Asia are also sharing the stage with crises in Europe and the Middle East while coinciding with America’s own electoral calendar.

For those who consider themselves “realists,” these developments highlight the folly in pursuing a values-based foreign policy. They will claim that the U.S. decision to look the other way as the democratic aspirations of millions of South Asia’s citizens were thwarted was inevitable as Washington sought to counter China’s rise by enlisting as many regional allies as possible. Certainly, this will be the lesson that autocrats within and outside the region will take from recent developments. These tyrants will be emboldened to ignore future U.S. entreaties about the importance of democracy and human rights and will view threats of punishment as being empty. While the U.S. may think that a more “realistic” approach to the region will yield diplomatic benefits, it is likely to find these gains to be illusory as the region’s autocrats continue to gravitate towards those who share their contempt for democratic values. After all, like seeks like.

With its Presidential elections rapidly approaching and with the normal turnover of senior officials to be expected in an election year, it is unlikely that the United States will undertake any major diplomatic initiatives in South Asia in the coming months. This will give the region’s autocrats time to consolidate their post-electoral control while the democratic forces regroup and plan their next moves. If any good can come of these developments, it may be that those fighting for democracy and rights will realize that they need to focus more of their efforts on mobilizing internal support for their cause rather than holding out hope that some external actor will swoop in on their behalf. Finally, while much of the focus of recent months has been on elections, the coming year will likely see South Asian states grapple with serious economic challenges that may provide the ultimate spark for political change.

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