The magnificent eight

  • After Kathmandu’s atmospherics, Saarc leaders need to seize the day
The magnificent eight

Dec 1, 2014-

Any time heads of government can sink their differences and come together for a summit, that gathering must be considered a success. As Nepal’s Commerce Minister Sunil Bahadur Thapa observed at a discussion on Saarc that I moderated on Kantipur Television just before the Summit, eight heads of government turning up to talk to each other over two days in Kathmandu—as their predecessors had done at previous gatherings—was in itself a justification for the grouping’s existence.

Lofty ideals

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif warmly greeting each other at the Summit’s closing ceremony—broadcast live on television—was the icing on the cake. The visuals of Modi and Sharif, who had shunned contact lately amidst tension between their two nations, were a public affirmation of the hope and aspiration that embody the very soul of Saarc.

They were also a rejection of the charge, usually levelled by cynics who resent the rise of another bloc to challenge the domination of the world by the cosy clubs of the West and the East, that Saarc Summits are just ‘talk fests’ and ’photo ops’. In its essence, Saarc represents an ideal of purity of purpose—a template even—rooted in a yearning for balanced and equitable social development and a rightful place for lesser powers in the comity of nations, surrounded as they are by groupings with morally questionable aims and ambitions.

Of Asean and EU

Even for those who believe in the superiority of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and the European Union (EU) over Saarc, it must be fairly obvious that Saarc has matured more organically than its counterparts, whose compulsion to unify was external—a perceived threat from communism.

For both EU and Asean, moving from regional security, the initial raison d’être, to economic integration has proved difficult. An Asean identity is difficult to grasp while the EU’s clear European profile has become disfigured of late, as new members join. For Saarc, a common identity is a discernible fact, as its member countries, in the main, share cultural, physical, and spiritual characteristics.

Both the EU, launched in another form in 1958, and Asean, from its beginnings in the late 1960s, took time to become somewhat wholesome entities. The EU, lately reduced to bitter quarrels between the rich and poorer states over the economic union, as well as Asean, are also smaller in terms of size and populace when compared to Saarc. Additionally, Saarc, hardly three decades old, faces daunting challenges in the pursuit of its stated aims of promoting peace, stability, and ridding the region of wretched poverty through economic and social development, while scrupulously avoiding political issues. With huge populations of the poor and the illiterate, the region is a stern test of Saarc’s resolve to raise the standard of living of its people.

Progress and self-respect

In a decisive moment in time, Saarc can coast along to its next gathering two years from now or commit to forcefully quickening the pace of change for the betterment of the vast sections of people struggling below universally acceptable conditions of existence. This change must be underpinned by accelerating the economic integration of the region in a manner where its gains are equitably distributed.

A major step in this direction was taken in 1995 with a Preferential Trading Arrangement agreement, at another momentous time, sandwiched between the end of the Cold War and the return to peace and functional constitutional democracy in much of the region. The seamless transfer of goods and services across Saarc may still be a distant dream, clouded by fears of being swamped by larger countries and political insecurities. But the intent towards overcoming current reservations on the lowering of barriers standing in the way of free trade was reflected in the Kathmandu Declaration at the end of the 18th Summit.

A major factor limiting economic growth among the larger Saarc countries is the lack of energy, a constraint that appears to not have been adequately appreciated in a region with an abundance of water resources, especially in smaller Nepal and Bhutan. This historical oversight was finally addressed in Kathmandu, with a landmark energy agreement that will hopefully lead to meeting the demands of Saarc’s bigger economies, perhaps through a promised regional power grid. This would be a game changer in spurring economic growth.

But material progress is not everything. People do yearn for self-respect too. Saarc is perhaps the only multilateral grouping of any significance that gives its members a platform for their voices to be heard. They are on the sidelines in every other global stage. This aspect has yet to trickle down to the people of Saarc, whose bureaucracy has kept the grouping largely cloistered with the corridors of government.

Yet, the future of Saarc must in the end come down to the people who lead its member nations; can they take advantage of the cordial atmospherics that enhanced the salubrious climes of Kathmandu?

The right time

If Nepal’s prime minister, Sushil Koirala, can thaw the ice between two leaders of much larger countries, the time appears propitious for Saarc itself to come out of the cold storage of inertia and stodginess and reinvent itself in the imagination of the people of the region, as it collectively emerges from a troubled decade.

Nepal has returned to the path of stability that could see it prosper, as in the case of Sri Lanka, now eyeing robust economic growth after decades of ethnic strife. Bangladesh and Maldives, after disturbed run-ups to their general elections, are settling down to what observers feel may be a period of significant economic development. The general election in India brought in a government not dependent, as in the past decade, on troublesome coalition allies, freeing Prime Minister Modi to undertake bold initiatives in governance and leadership of not just his country, but Saarc itself.

As the overwhelmingly dominant Saarc economy, India’s growth can act as a catalyst for the entire region to develop at a much faster pace than ever before. For this, much depends on the leaders to carry forward the goodwill that was on display at the Kathmandu Summit, and translate it into action that makes Saarc relevant in the lives of its teeming, hopeful millions. The time

is ripe.

Manoharan, a Reuters veteran, is Editor-in-Chief of Global Dialogue Review

Published: 02-12-2014 09:26

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