Saarc seems to have been taken to the morgue from the ICU. Here’s why it needs to be revived

For the future of the South Asian region and its peoples depends on it.

India is gloating at its success in sabotaging the 19th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad on November 15-16 by deciding to boycott it. What is even more gratifying for New Delhi is that other constituents of the grouping have followed suit, first Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan, and subsequently Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

From a diplomatic standpoint it is no mean achievement given that the standard narrative is of its neighbours “ganging up” against India. But it is now Pakistan versus the rest. What kind of diplomatic pressure India exerted on the latter to make them toe its line is still not known, but it is common sense that it was inherent in the situation.

First, Saarc without India amounts to Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. Accounting for three quarters of the region in terms of almost everything important like area (after Afghanistan’s entry into Saarc in 2005 this is slightly less), population, Gross Domestic Product and military expenditure, India and Saarc are virtually interchangeable. Without India the organisation is defunct.

Second, those who went by India’s decision may be small but they also know geo-politics. Barring Afghanistan, their borders touch India’s borders, not Pakistan’s.

A failed experiment

But there is a larger question. Imagine that the Summit takes place as scheduled. Then, barring the homilies exchanged among the leaders and some routine resolutions passed, the entire attention would be on how India and Pakistan thrash out their bilateral differences on the side-lines of the conference over the question of Kashmir and more generally over Pakistan-inspired terrorism. Herein lies the bane of Saarc. It is so much overshadowed by the India-Pakistan encounter that it has become nothing but a failed experiment.

No wonder that intra-regional trade is as little as 4.6% of the region’s total international trade. Here is some comparison: it is 40% in North American Free Trade Agreement , 26% in Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and 67% in European Union. Further, the region accounts for about 25% of the world’s population but contributes barely 2.5% to the global trade, that too primarily because of India.

Let us not, therefore, shed crocodile tears at the tragedy of the Summit’s non-show. The two principal members of Saarc, India and Pakistan, have other ambitions. It is generally the view in India that for the failure of Saarc, Pakistan is responsible. The fact is that India is equally responsible. India has found the substitute of Saarc in sub-regional and sub-regional plus cooperation looking eastward, and Pakistan has found the same by looking extra regionally westward and also towards China in a big way if the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is any indication. The corridor runs through the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir right up to the Gwador Port in Balochistan. Hardly has the Summit controversy gone out of focus, the majority of Saarc members, barring Pakistan, are busy talking about the prospects of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, consisting of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal.

India and Pakistan, and in a lesser sense everyone else, may now wail at all diplomatic forums over the “death” of Saarc, while blaming one another of killing it. But all these 30 years of the grouping’s existence, the maximum they all have done is not to snap its respiratory support cord. Otherwise how can one explain that the Saarc Summit meeting which is supposed to be an annual affair is still debating its 19th Summit which ideally should have been its 31st? Many of the summits could not be held simply because some bilateral tension came in the way. Yet, strangely, the Saarc constitution prohibits any discussion on bilateral matters. Time and money is spent during Saarc summits on less important issues and that too by sheer passage of resolutions, not by their faithful implementation. Does Saarc matter in global reckoning? Minimally, to be charitable to the grouping. The latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its 2011 Year Book did not even mention Saarc while listing the regional groupings from across the globe. But it did not fail to list the Asean, another Asian grouping.

Why it matters

Mark Twain once said: “A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.” The same is true of Saarc. It is a great idea but it has to succeed. And before that happens, the cobweb that has been woven in our inter-state relations will have to be cleared, which is easier said than done. Two factors matter the most, one, India’s unprecedented rise yet not enough to impress its neighbours that much, and two, the shadow of China which provides a constant source of anxiety to India but which is a positive factor for the rest of the region. This dichotomy comes in the way of South Asian regional consciousness.

Closely connected to this is the question of India’s own image of its greatness. People do not overlook that India is the world’s largest importer of weapons while China is one of the largest exporters. In bilateral economic terms, China is India’s biggest trading partner. Against this background, when India expects that India’s neighbours must give more importance to India instead of China the diatribe sounds hollow.

Saarc is just one instrument. The future of the South Asian region is in its peoples which the respective leaderships fear the most, as reflected in the increasingly stricter visa regimes. There is no doubt that if India and Pakistan loosen these regimes there will be a huge improvement in bilateral relationship. But unfortunately the present situation is just not conducive for that.

The bottomline is that the sooner the 19th Summit is held, the better. It should not be anybody’s case that the present stand-off between India and Pakistan should be allowed to linger indefinitely, for it is pregnant with dangerous possibilities.

There is no other organisation than Saarc that is particularly suited to facilitate this process, its general failure notwithstanding.

Partha S Ghosh is ICSSR National Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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