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Just a handshake for SAARC’s sake

  By Vijay Darda | 01-12-2014

On 26th May this year, Narendra Modi began his tenure as India’s prime minister with a grand diplomatic move. He invited all the SAARC heads of state to his swearing-in ceremony. This was a first for any Indian prime minister. The fact that even Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif also gave a positive response after due deliberation was seen as the most encouraging sign for peace and harmony in the troubled South Asian region. Coming after his hard line rhetoric of a winning election campaign, most observers read it as a departure from the BJP’s tough talk approach. This created an impression of the beginning of a new chapter in India-Pakistan discourse.

However, in international diplomacy grand gestures are one thing, and ground realities quite another. It did not take long for the realities to surface and the follow-up Indo-Pak foreign secretary levels talks had to be aborted for controversial reasons. Since then it has been a downhill slide so much so that last week, at the 18th SAARC summit in Nepal, sadly a mere prime ministerial handshake by India and Pakistan was seen as the only take way. The fact that it had to be brokered by host prime minister Sushil Koirala at the Dhulikhel retreat added to the gravity. It just shows that the hostility between the two sides that began with the malign parting gift of partition by the imperial Britishers continues to dictate the policy options for them. Let us face it, this reiterates that building ‘normal’ relations with Pakistan is an uphill climb. It is a long haul and the path is riddled with hurdles.

But then a regional cooperation forum like the SAARC is expected to liberate the entire region from the shackles of bilateral disputes. It is expected that when the heads of states come together at such a forum they would be propelled by the collective interests of the entire region. The mechanism should be evolved in such a way so as to ensure that the proceedings are not held hostage by any country.

This SAARC summit had three important agreements to conclude – market access, rail road connectivity and energy cooperation framework. But Pakistan argued that it is not ready to sign all of these, and with much difficulty conceded to accept just one – the energy framework. However, the key issue is not just this flawed summit. It is the overall inability for the SAARC to contribute as meaningfully to the region like other such entities like the European Union. In this context, blaming Pakistan for its stubborn approach is an option, but realistically it does not take us anywhere. If India has to be the driver of this regional economy then it has to get into a more pro-active role. It has to share its expertise, experience and knowledge in crucial sectors like education, healthcare for the neighbours to reap benefits.

The point being that merely ignoring Nawaz Sharif’s physical presence at the SAARC summit is not going to isolate Pakistan in real terms. It may help a jingoistic media flash some sensational headlines, but in real terms it achieves precious little. The bottom line has to be that irrespective of Pakistan’s negative role, within a reasonable time frame the rest of the SAARC region moves ahead at such a pace that it makes a compelling argument for Islamabad to fall in line. This goal can be achieved if sub-regional agreements are worked out within SAARC, and there is a greater emphasis on signing and implementing bilateral arrangements in these areas. It also makes practical sense as SAARC in any case lacks the resources and institutions to implement giant projects.

For historic reasons and due to unresolved border conflicts, SAARC countries have their own issues, and a tendency to attack India’s influence in the region. The joint proposal from Pakistan and Nepal to grant full member status to China in this forum should be looked at from this perspective. India’s opposition to this proposal is logical as well as understandable. But given China’s financial muscle, and its natural inclination to make life difficult for India, we should realise that this is a proposal that shall keep propping up, and perhaps with time our ability to resist it would also erode. A possible option is to create certain conditions that also allow Japan to become a full member, so that the two powers can act as counter-balancing forces. This, however, does not appear to be an immediate problem, but has to be kept in mind.

The real issue is that whether India as the largest country in the region can actually make such a contribution to its relations with the neighbours – all of them including Pakistan (if it so desires) so that SAARC feels safe as a unit that can then engage with the rest of the world. Can it create such a situation in which each of the neighbours comes to a conclusion that it would be in their national interest to work along with India? In a theoretical construct, this is possible only when India becomes a strong stakeholder in their prosperity. In practical terms it becomes feasible only when ties move beyond photo-ops and public posturing to meaningful projects with substantial investments on the ground.

Before I conclude… 

The debate over black money in both the Houses of Parliament told us one thing in unambiguous terms. The BJP has kissed good bye to its promise of depositing `15 lakhs into the bank account of every citizen – not just in 100 days of coming to power, but perhaps for ever. We also have it on the authority of their senior leader M Venkaiah Naidu that they are not ‘immature’ enough to promise that the black money would be brought back in 100 days. He read out his party’s manifesto for the benefit of the members of Parliament. Though it almost sounds like making customers read the fine print after making tall promises of an enticing deal, the reality is that the customers (voters in this case) are not a gullible lot. They have their own time tested ways and means of dealing with such situations. The only thing is that they wait and act at the right time in the right measure.


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Just a handshake for SAARC’s sake


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