Commentary from the South Asia Center on the most relevant news from the region, and suggested “must-read” analyses from the week.

Eleven regional parties formally united to form a block in Parliament in the clearest indication of an emergence of a “Third Front” ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, due to be held by the end of May. This federal block of parties, non-aligned with either the Congress or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), includes Uttar Pradesh’s Samjwadi Party, Bihar’s Janata Dal, Tamil Nadu’s All India Dravida Nunnetra Kazhagam, Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal party, as well as four leftist parties. The group collectively unites under a pro-people, anti-communal and federal agenda, and plans to draft a common program and hold joint rallies in an attempt to consolidate unity. Most notably is the presence of the Samajwadi Party (SP) that usually gives external support to the incumbent United Progressive Alliance. SP’s leader Ramgopal Yadav claimed the backing of the ‘Third Front’ was solely issue-based. Across the border, the government of Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif invited India to engage in a “comprehensive, sustained, and result-oriented” dialogue in order to resolve the Kashmir issue. Both nations believe that resolution to the long-standing dispute is essential for normalizing relations and bridging the prevalent trust-deficit.

Relevant News Stories
Narendra Modi Draws the Young & Educated (Times of India)
India Warns US of Consequences on Visa Reform (NDTV)
Nawaz Sharif Invites India for Dialogue on Kashmir (Economic Times)

Moving forward with peace talks, negotiators representing the government of Pakistan and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) met for the first time this week in Islamabad. The meeting, held amid confusion regarding the mandate of negotiators from either side, culminated in the chalking out of a roadmap for the dialogue. Earlier, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, a TTP negotiator, stated that the negotiations will only happen and succeed if the government of Pakistan will agree to implement Sharia (Islamic law and jurisprudence) in the country. However, after the meeting, he conceded that negotiations will happen under the Pakistani constitution, and the demands will only apply to areas under the militancy’s rule. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last week conditioned talks with the TTP on a cessation of militant activity, despite violence continuing in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This week alone, two bomb blasts occurred in Peshawar, claiming 8 lives and leaving 42 injured. Nobody claimed responsibility for the incident.

Relevant News Stories
U.S. said to curtail drone strikes in Pakistan as officials there seek peace talks with Taliban (Washington Post)
Government, TTP negotiators Chart Roadmap for Peace Talks (Dawn)
North Waziristan appears close to full-blown conflict (Dawn)

Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, indicated that the unfinished Arak reactor could be modified to produce less plutonium in a bid to pacify the West. The Arak site, which has long been a concern to Western nations, could be a roadblock to the seemingly thawing relations between Iran and the West. The Arak site can theoretically produce weapons-grade plutonium from its spent fuel, if in addition to the reactor; Tehran also builds a reprocessing facility—thereby giving the nation an alternative route to acquiring an atomic bomb. While Iran’s nuclear chief is willing to “do some design change in order to produce less plutonium” to mitigate Western concerns, Western powers believe that Tehran has no need for some of the existing facilities, most notably the Arak reactor, in order to have a peaceful civilian nuclear program. The UN nuclear watchdog aims to persuade Iran in talks this coming Saturday to finally address long-held suspicions that it has worked on designing an atomic bomb.

Relevant News Stories
Iran’s Hardliners Just Tried to Muzzle Hassan Rouhani (Foreign Policy Magazine)
France May Reach Iran Trade Deals in Weeks, Ex Envoy Says  (Bloomberg)
U.N. Nuclear Watchdog Expects Cooperation at Last in Iran Inquiry (Reuters)
Iran Parliament Backs Rouhani Plan for Subsidy Cuts (Reuters)

Following democratic reforms initiated in 2012, the US government this week moved to continue easing economic sanctions on the former pariah state. The US government’s export credit agency will now enable American companies exporting to Myanmar to apply for financing, export-credit insurance, loan guarantees, as well as direct loans in an attempt to improve trade flows between the two nations and aid Myanmar’s reintegration into the global economy. US companies now look set to capitalize on the nation’s untapped market and see potential for an increase in US exports in sectors such as agriculture, equipment, commodities, and power and mining equipment, which in total exports stood at $145 million in 2013.

Relevant News Stories
Myanmar Arrests 5 Journalists from Private Journal (San Francisco Gate)
Report Hints of Strength of Anti-Reform Sentiment in Myanmar (The Wall Street Journal)

As Afghanistan prepares for its democratic transition of power this year, all nine presidential candidates have started to release their political manifestos, and hold large gatherings in Kabul. Considering that the country lacks a robust resource base and a skilled workforce to deliver on political promises, candidates’ pledges to build infrastructure, curb corruption, increase education and youth employment opportunities, stabilize peace and improve governance seem unrealistic. However, all the manifestos recognize Afghanistan’s economic and developmental needs and exhibit the political acumen of the running candidates. Moreover, the political gatherings in capital of the country are pulling large crowds including women. The UN’s Special Representative Ján Kubiš voiced the importance of women’s participation in the upcoming April election, stating “for Afghanistan, [women’s] participation in the civic life and decision-making of the nation strengthens its representative institutions and is vital to accelerating economic and development progress.” The interior ministry has ordered extra security for women voters, specifically women personnel, to encourage and secure their participation.

Relevant News Stories
Afghan Women Can Wield Powerful Force at Ballot Box (USIP)
Afghanistan Counternarcotics Efforts Continue, DoD Official Says The Future Agenda of the Presidential Candidates (Outlook Afghanistan)
Obama Consults Defense Team on Afghanistan (Outlook Afghanistan)