Historic handshake

  • The 18th Saarc Summit is an opportunity for Nepal to showcase its leadership skills
- Gopal Thapa
Historic handshake

Nov 23, 2014-

Nearly 12 years have passed since Nepal successfully hosted the 11th Saarc Summit in January 2002. At that time, this scribe worked at the Saarc Division under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was intimately involved in the preparatory aspects of the Summit.

Meticulous preparations

The Summit had to be unfortunately postponed at the eleventh hour at the request of India. After a great deal of effort, new dates were finally agreed upon. Even so, security concerns were high as the meeting was being held under difficult circumstances, primarily due to tense relations between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the Kargil war. India had reluctantly agreed to attend the conference, mainly in consideration of the huge expenses Nepal had already made while making preparations for the summit. A prolonged deferral would not only have incurred additional cost to Nepal, it would have sent a negative signal, certainly not propitious, to the region as well as the international community. The fact that the Summit, already postponed once, was taking place and the leaders of the two countries had agreed to attend it was thus considered a great achievement in itself.

Owing to that, Nepal spared no efforts to ensure foolproof security. Then Prime Minster Sher Bahadur Deuba had taken up the responsibility of calling frequent meetings of the security agencies to brief him about the ongoing preparations. He would make several visits to VVIP routes, including the hotels the dignitaries would be staying at and the Summit venue, to check how security arrangements were being made. I also remember a Joint Secretary, in charge of the Saarc Division, telling me about how Deuba would call him, often at his residence in Baluwatar, and make him read out the speech he was going to make at the conference. He would then practice it painstakingly with the Secretary for several hours! I was also told that several mock sessions were held for Deuba at his residence to brief him about the manner and decorum in which he was supposed to chair and conduct the Summit meetings. That showed the level of Deuba’s seriousness as Chairman of the Summit.

The historic handshake

Luckily, the arrival of VVIPs in Kathmandu and to the Summit venue the following day took place without a hitch. The 11th Summit began in earnest under Nepal’s chairmanship on the planned date. The address to the Summit by the heads of state and government began in alphabetical order. When  it was Prime Minister Deuba’s turn, he called upon the Pakistani President to come to the podium and address the Summit. In response, then Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf rose from his seat and walked past the other heads of state and government. But no sooner was Musharraf in front of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that he suddenly stopped and extended his hand, apparently for a handshake. Naturally, the Indian prime minister was taken aback by this unexpected gesture. But being the seasoned statesman that Vajpayee was, without thinking much, he stood up from his seat and stretched out his hand, displaying an equal measure of magnanimity. The two leaders shook hands, making for a historic handshake. This act electrified the mood of the leaders and the audience in the hall. The heads of state and government on the dais and the audience in the hall all rose from their seats for a standing ovation. The thunderous round of applause went on for quite some time. It was indeed a memorable moment for all to witness.

Naturally, the handshake between the Indian prime minister and the Pakistani president became the highlight of the 11th Summit, instantly drawing regional and global attention and accolades. This uncommon show of statesmanship by the two most influential leaders of the region went a long way in making the 11th Summit a success. The dazzling personality of Musharraf, matched equally by the sublime and erudite personality of Vajpayee, and the confidence and hope they exuded throughout the Summit is still etched deeply in my memory.

Opportune time

The upcoming 18th Summit is also happening at an interesting time and is opportune for Nepal. First, Kathmandu is home to the Saarc Secretariat and coincidentally, the current Saarc Secretary General also happens to be from Nepal. Second, the Summit is taking place at a relatively peaceful time in the region. Third, we are welcoming Afghanistan in Nepal for the first time as the newest member of the organisation. Fourth, the dynamic and development-friendly Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, whose ‘neighbour first’ policy has already endeared him in the eyes of the people of South Asia, is attending the Summit. His favourable disposition towards Saarc, as expressed on various occasions, has generated a great sense of optimism.  There are expectations that he will help galvanise the Summit into concrete action this time around. Fifth, Nepal has the opportunity to welcome, also for the first time, her important northern neighbour, China, as an observer. Though China has not expressed its interest to become a full-fledged Saarc member, there already are rumours in Nepali intellectual circles about the need to try to include it in the regional body as a full member. There is a lot of substance and wisdom in this. The prospect of Saarc’s regional economic cooperation getting off the ground would be tremendously high if only the two emerging economic powerhouses in Asia were to become members of Saarc. A gathering of such important leaders and observers from the region and across the world in Kathmandu is, thus, something to rejoice, and to feel excited about.

Domestic affairs

The only problem, however, is our own domestic politics, littered with inter-party bickering over the constitution-drafting process. Hopefully, and true to the Nepali tradition, the 11th hour magic will work and sanity will prevail among our major political leaders. Consensus reached before the Summit could have become the real highlight of the 18th  Summit, very much similar to the historic handshake of the 11th Summit. Besides, it would also lift Nepal’s morale, respectability, and image, regionally and internationally. It would be something worth remembering by all the Nepali people.   

The 18th Saarc Summit is a unique opportunity for Nepal to showcase its management, negotiation, and leadership skills. Particularly, for our Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to give a real measure of his leadership, his negotiating capability, and skill in chairing and conducting Summit meetings with diplomatic dexterity and flair. As Chairman of the Summit, he will obviously be at the centre of focus and attention. His performance will be watched by million viewers on television, at home and abroad. The dynamism, charisma, and confidence of the Chairman will certainly make a big difference in the success of the Summit. However, the successful conclusion of the Summit is ultimately a collective responsibility. Nevertheless, let us keep our fingers crossed for the success of the 18th Saarc Summit under Koirala’s chairmanship.

Thapa is a former chief of protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Published: 24-11-2014 09:19

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