Prime Minister of India Mr Narendra Modi had described his first major foreign policy initiative of inviting South Asian Association Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders for his swearing-in on May 26 as a “right decision at the right time” and said a message has gone out to the world which is still talking about it. Six months after highlighting the centrality and importance of SAARC to India’s foreign affairs, Nepal is all set to host the 18th SAARC Summit at Kathmandu from Nov 22 to 27. This summit will be watched very carefully as the Indian PM is likely to reset the future course for this region.
SAARC is nowhere close to other regional groupings like the EU and the ASEAN but potentially far way ahead. For exponential gains, serious fundamental restructuring is required.
SAARC summit is held every eighteen months and attended by the head of states of member nations. SAARC is an economic and a geo-political association comprising of eight member states, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India. An association created for the welfare of the people of South Asian region that has largely fallen short of its objectives.
As per the study conducted by Stanford Journal of International Relations, India is the most powerful country in the region and other member states are no rival to it in terms of economic and political influence in the world. This asymmetry to a great extent, hampers the development of SAARC because small countries are wary of the dominance of India in the region. Vast potential of this regional grouping has thus so far gone untapped largely failing due to mutual suspicions.
SAARC is nowhere close to other regional groupings like the EU and the ASEAN but potentially far way ahead. For exponential gains, serious fundamental restructuring is required. This restructuring is essential since India’s growth story will be incomplete without the participation of its neighbours. The destiny of our eastern and north eastern states is intertwined with that of our neighbours, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Myanmar. It is in India’s interest to ensure meeting the objectives of the Association mentioned in the Article I of the SAARC Charter. The foremost objective being promotion of the welfare of people of SOUTH ASIA and to improve their quality of life by accelerating economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realise their full potentials.
However going by the past trends, are we going to witness the agenda of Kathmandu summit getting hijacked by Pakistan’s Kashmir rant? Will the SAARC platform present itself with yet another opportunity to Pakistan to highlight Kashmir at an international forum? Or, will the world witness a statesman in Modi bypassing Pakistan’s strategy of holding SAARC hostage to Indo- Pak relations, something that needs to be seen. It is well known that Pakistan since the inception of SAARC has consistently tried to stall its proceedings. Holding destiny of the complete region to ransom virtually rendering SAARC irrelevant.
Leaving aside Pakistan the political canvas pan SAARC countries is reflecting stability and confidence. In South Asia the situation has changed dramatically. There is an overt realisation of working together amongst the member nations…
Today Mr Modi rides over a strong mandate who has been voted to power for his developmental agenda and his high credentials as an effective and efficient administrator. India’s general elections of 2014 are unparalleled anywhere in the world in terms of magnitude and mandate beyond any doubt. Over 538 million voters elected a government with unprecedented majority unseen in past three decades. This makes the Indian Prime Minister potentially the most powerful head of state in the complete region of South Asia.
The message from this prodigious mandate is to break free from status-quo and stereo type politics and methods of governance. This message has somewhat resonated with a similar mood of hope and aspirations prevailing in India’s neighbourhood. A hope that pivots around development and dignity. For decades there has been a desire of many in this region looking up to India assuming the role of a regional leader by setting aside fears and apprehensions. Unfortunately the lack of drive by India has created a sense of betrayal amongst some of her neighbours. Though the recent praise from Imran Khan of Modi is not at all an indicator of shifting perceptions in Pakistan’s establishment but the overwhelming response Indian Prime Minister has received during his visits to Nepal and Bhutan definitely underscores that shift in the east.
Recalling the circumstances when SAARC was signed into existence in 1985 by heads of state who were either not popular or lacked legitimacy in their respective countries. Their weak credibility has perhaps contributed to the lacklustre performance of SAARC for over three decades. However all this appears to have has changed. Today strong leaders head their governments in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and India. Nepal is on the right track and Myanmar on the other side wants to join SAARC. She is undergoing reforms at a fast pace and is now opening up to the world for wider engagements. A country that can act as a bridge into ASEAN countries should no longer be ignored.
Leaving aside Pakistan the political canvas pan SAARC countries is reflecting stability and confidence. In South Asia the situation has changed dramatically. There is an overt realisation of working together amongst the member nations bearing positive perceptions in people all across. Free movement of goods, people and ideas is what the region desires. India can no longer be a prisoner of self-inflicted paranoia. All the while we considered SAARC as a forum that allowed a manoeuvre room to herneighbours in balancing the asymmetry; hence a trust deficit, the advantage of which has been taken by China.
…since its advent nearly three decades ago, the SAARC has been held hostage to bilateral disputes, mostly between India and Pakistan. As a consequence, SAARC has not been able to facilitate cooperation between member states.
It is just too unfortunate that the Pakistani Prime Minister who returned to power with strong mandate in 2013 has been reduced in stature by its own military. A military which is perusing an agenda in contravention to norms of peace and development in the region is something against the wishes of its own masses. The people of this region are restless and want a change. South Asia has a vast internal market which needs to be tapped. This is realised by all including the Pakistanis. It can provide immense opportunities towards growth and prosperity in our region.
An economic union is the order of the day. If India has to achieve its global desires to be an economic power, she has to get into the driver’s seat and create an environment which provides opportunities and not just veto them for security concerns. Those countries who are more vulnerable to terrorism have used technology to their advantage without restricting trade and growth. India can always learn from them, it just needs a changed mind set. The timings could not be as right as this time, the moment has to be seized.
In its efforts to assert herself as the rightful leader in our region, the Indian Prime Minister’s speech in the United Nations assumes greater significance. To quote Narendra Modi when he said that “I am also mindful of the expectations of the world from 1.25 billion people. India is a country that constitutes one-sixth of humanity; a nation experiencing economic and social transformation on a scale rarely seen in history. Every nation’s world view is shaped by its civilization and philosophical tradition. India’s ancient wisdom sees the world as one family. It is this timeless current of thought that gives India an unwavering belief in multilateralism”. This spells out the grand vision of hope especially for the region of South Asia.
In this larger belief of multilateralism Pakistan is unlikely to change its stance of challenging India at all costs while the rest cannot continue to suffer for infinity. Is our region therefore ready for transformation of SAARC in to an association minus Pakistan? This could be a matter of debate but none the less it’s time for Pakistan to change her steps or else risk herself of isolation.
Ever since its advent nearly three decades ago, the SAARC has been held hostage to bilateral disputes, mostly between India and Pakistan. As a consequence, SAARC has not been able to facilitate cooperation between member states. There is a need to look at alternative models preferably a regional grouping that includes Myanmar but excludes Pakistan.