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SAARC: Balancing regional realities, global modalities :: Analysis :By N Sathiya Moorthy

If observers of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) thought that the just-concluded 18th Summit in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu would take off from where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had left at his inauguration in May, it was not to be. Instead, the Summit will now be remembered for the return of regional realities and global modalities that had hampered the growth and development of SAARC as a regional organisation almost since inception.

As the early focus of the Summit was the promised signing of the South Asian power-grid and two transportation agreements, aimed at expanding and extending bilateral arrangements, wherever existed or planned, to the region as a whole. At the end of it, they could sign only the power-grid pact, and also save the Summit itself from near-collapse after India and Pakistan sparred over bilateral concerns.

Pakistan can be blamed for converting the multilateral venue into a bilateral confrontation arena with India. Pakistan’s last-minute request/complaint that they needed more time for internal study of the three agreement-drafts was untenable, as ministers and/or officials concerned had cleared them already, after adequate internal consultations.

Obviously, Pakistan was upset over India not wanting the customary bilateral meeting on the SAARC sidelines. Buying time to discuss the three agreement drafts internally was Pakistan’s way of registering its protest – not viz SAARC but viz India. The reported pre-Summit efforts of hosts, Nepal, to have the India-Pakistan prime ministerial level meeting on the sidelines showed how precarious the entire Summit was being held hostage.

Share of the blame?

Should India also share the blame for Pakistan’s misdemeanour at Kathmandu? Should Prime Minister Narendra Modi have met with his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif, and reiterated India’s known complaints on cross-border terrorism, and not made an issue of the very meeting? To say the least, should PM Modi have shaken hands with Sharif at the Summit inauguration (also), and not the valedictory (alone)? Given the membership and size(s), SAARC Summit is not like the UN General Assembly meeting, where too India decided against the prime ministerial level meeting with Pakistan.

Unlike in the UN, India and Pakistan, separately or together and by taking adversarial positions, can render any SAARC Summit fruitless – and, thus the SAARC arrangement itself equally unproductive, one more time. Or, maybe even while deciding for PM Modi not to have a bilateral with Pakistan at the UN, his aides should have thought also about the impending SAARC Summit, which was not far away. In particular, they should have thought about the consequences of a repeat-performance viz Pakistan at Kathmandu and its effects on India’s standing and continued credibility as wanting a stronger SAARC, and PM Modi’s offer of a ‘SAARC satellite, et al — and thus a greater share and responsibility in building it.

It will now take India greater and renewed efforts to convince fellow-members that it is still serious about developing SAARC as a regional harbinger of shared growth and development. It will take Pakistan even greater efforts to tell them all that it would in future not bring in bilateral symbolism – or, absence of it – to work at the SAARC and make bi-annual summits remembered for all wrong reasons.

India’s ‘no’ to China

According to media reports, India also thwarted Pakistani efforts to have China admitted as a full-member of the SAARC. Along with eight other non-regional nations, including the US, China now enjoys ‘observer’ status at SAARC. Thus SAARC now has eight members and nine ‘observers’.

India’s position viz China should not be predicated on bilateral concerns as much as larger issues pertaining to the growth and independence of SAARC. China is not the only nation to share borders with SAARC member-nations, thought it may be the most important of them in the neighbourhood. Worse still, non-regional members like the US and China could make SAARC a regional forum for non-regional players to compete in sub-regional affairs too. Neither was the aim when SAARC members collectively and consensually allowed ‘observers’ in the first place.

Generous and assertive

Events and developments in the past had reportedly made India feel at times that cartelisation by smaller member-nations in SAARC had ended up favouring Pakistan on occasions, and worked against its interests even otherwise. In the post-Cold War, post-reforms boom in the domestic economy, and the combined consequent self-confidence it now possesses, India needs to acknowledge that it has grown to the levels where it could afford to be as generous as it at times wants to be assertive – and be seen as being one as the other.

In terms of development and growth, political and physical security, smaller neighbours may be irrational at times, but they expect more from India. Despite lack of acknowledgement and global projections to the contrary, it will remain so for a long, long time to come. It’s to India’s benefit as much as it may seem a burden. A self-confident India cannot continue to suffer from the tentativeness of a bygone past.

Neighbourhood nations want India to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) with full ‘veto-power’ as much as India too wants it. India has their growth in heart, but does not have the resources to underwrite them as the US was once upon a time and China at present. India wants to back them all politically in international arena, but is not one of the P-5 nations. China is.

If anything, India has remained tentative, inconsistent and at times confused over the past decade and more, when alone permanent member status at the UNSC became a plausible demand for India to make on the international community. This tentativeness on India’s part, and some of the avoidable embarrassment and confusion it has caused to fellow-members at the SAARC over UN-related issues of selection and election, is also a cause for concern in those nations.

Hedging ‘sovereignty’

Given their relative sizes, and those of their populations, economic weight and political leverage, smaller nations, in real terms and not just in South Asia, have only ‘sovereignty’ to hedge and pledge in bilateral and multilateral engagements or embroilment with larger nations, neighbours included – or, to start with. Thus, what may look to larger neighbours as wanton inclusion of avoidable irritants in bilateral relations, and at times in multilateral contexts, are also an expression of smaller nations’ anguish and/or inability.

In the Indian context, it has applied to a greater or lesser extent to all its neighbours, at different points in time. History and historicity notwithstanding, it’s also a part of the problem with, in and of Pakistan. The reality of the situation demands that India handles Pakistan separately. India also has to approach the rest of SAARC neighbours with a more accommodative mind-set. Such mind-sets cannot be confined to sharing history and culture, economic prosperity and development-spending.

In particular, those smaller nations would expect their bigger neighbour(s) to be the eternal guarantor of their political and geo-strategic independence and sovereignty – and as perceived by them in their own particular circumstances. At times, it may be linked or seen as being linked to a particular leadership in office in those nations. Looked at closely, it’s a reflection of a national mind-set and attitude, displayed differently by different leaderships, which in turn are often personality-driven and for the very same reason(s). But the core issue(s) of ‘sovereignty’ remain.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter) (By Observer Research Foundation)

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