NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that all eight members of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) grouping led by India can draw up a common plan to eliminate poverty from the region, transforming South Asia into a global power.
In his Independence Day address on Friday, the prime minister urged the member countries to bury their differences and eschew violence to work towards a prosperous region. “I seek cooperation from neighbouring countries for fighting against poverty in concert and cooperate with them, so that together with SAARC countries we can create our importance and emerge as a power in the world. It is imperative that we work together with a dream to win a fight against poverty, shoulder to shoulder,” he said.
Within days of being elected as prime minister, Modi had invited leaders of all other SAARC countries to his swearing-in ceremony, making it clear that he wanted to engage with the countries in the region on a priority basis.
Nearly three decades after it was set up, SAARC remains one of the poorest regional groupings marred by differences among the member countries.
“Can we not remove poverty? Can we not wage war against poverty?” Modi asked in his address. “Our neighbouring countries are also faced with the same problem. Why not get together with all the SAARC nations to plan out the fight against poverty? Let’s fight together and defeat poverty. Let us see, at least for once, as to how wonderful is the feeling of being alive instead of killing and getting killed,” the prime minister said, in a veiled reference to Pakistan.
“The strength of the saviour is much more than the strength of the person who kills. Let’s unite to fight poverty,” he said.
Senior government officials told ET that the PM planned to forge stronger economic cooperation and increase intra-South Asian trade by removing the bottlenecks. The PM would also like to focus on improving and and expanding connectivity in the region that would lead to better economic partnership, officials said, adding that he would also emphasise on energy cooperation on lines of power generation and trade with Bhutan and Nepal.
Modi also recalled his visits to Bhutan and Nepal and the coming of SAARC leaders to his swearing-in ceremony. “This marked a good beginning. This will definitely yield good results. It is my belief and this thinking of India, in the country and the world, that we want to do well to the countrymen and be useful for the welfare of the world. India wants such a hand to be extended,” he said from Delhi’s Red Fort.
The PM’s address must be seen in the context of his attempts to reach out to all SAARC nations, especially the ones who are strategically vital to India and where China is jockeying for influence too, officials said.
“Inviting SAARC leaders on May 26, asking Indian scientists to develop SAARC satellite, his visit to Bhutan and Nepal and now today’s remarks on poverty free South Asia is all part of his attempts to engage more with neighbours and bring them closer to Delhi,” said an official, who did not wish to be named.
Modi wants India to assume leadership in the region as well as take the neighbours along simultaneously, explained another official. “But this regional leadership is beyond cliches of size and military strength. The PM wants to leverage all of India’s strengths to take SAARC nations together.Whether it is space technology, agriculture, IT, education, health – war on poverty can be successfully waged in these terms,” the official said.
The prime minister wants trade to be key element in improving ties even with Pakistan, officials said, pointing out that with this intention Modi and Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif had decided during their May 27 meeting that Pakistan would allow trade via Wagah-Attari border on the lines of bilateral trade via Karachi. But Pakistan is yet to make efforts to facilitate this, officials said.
During his visit to Indian Space Research Organisation’s facility at Sriharikota in June, too, Modi had asked the scientists to develop a satellite which would serve all the SAARC nations. Modi’s attempts to forge closer cooperation in the region comes at a time when China has expanded its footprints in South Asia, particularly in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and wants to increase its presence in Nepal, much to India’s discomfiture.
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