Long way to go

  • Saarc needs major changes in both perspective and structure
Long way to go

Dec 8, 2014-

December 8, Saarc Charter Day, came and went with barely a whimper. Barely two weeks after the 18th Saarc Summit in Kathmandu, Bhutan and Sri Lanka were the only two nations to issue greetings. That all the euphoria that preceded the Summit has died down so fast is no surprise. The Kathmandu Summit, much like every other Summit that came before it, was full of bluster with little substance. Three major regional agreements—on energy, roads, and railways—were held hostage to the frosty relationship between Saarc’s two largest members—India and Pakistan. During the Summit, the icy body language of Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif hogged headlines. It was only after gentle prodding from Prime Minister Sushil Koirala that Modi and Sharif shared a contrived handshake. Subsequently, an energy agreement was finally signed, along with a commitment to ink the other two agreements in three months’ time. As such, the outcome of the Summit was disappointing; the Kathmandu Declaration stated as much, limiting itself to high-flown rhetoric.

As evident at the Kathmandu Summit, the fractious relationship between India and Pakistan has been Saarc’s cause célèbre—the single biggest reason behind Saarc’s failure to make headway in regional integration, despite its 30-year history. While other regional blocs like Asean and the EU have made large strides in economic integration and intra-regional trade, Saarc remains the least integrated region in the world. Visa regulations across the region, except in Nepal and the Maldives, are cumbersome and ponderous. Saarc capital cities do not connect with each other via air, as illustrated by Foreign Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey’s compulsion to fly to Dubai in order to get to Pakistan from Kabul while inviting leaders to the Kathmandu Summit. Intra-regional trade is dismal. In 2013, 50 percent of trade in Asean was intra-regional; in Saarc, it was a measly 6 percent.

With close to one-fourth of the world’s population, South Asia is a vital region. It also hosts two nuclear-armed belligerents. A regional platform, therefore, can be crucial to ameliorating tensions, providing space for informal dialogue, and not least in aiding trade. PM Koirala’s diplomacy was an example of how small nations can act as a bridge between larger nations. However, to play such a role, Saarc needs major changes, both in perspective and in structure. Indian PM Modi has displayed laudable commitment to the neighbourhood, displayed first in his invitation to all Saarc leaders to his swearing-in ceremony in May. But the studied aloofness Modi maintained during Sharif’s passage to the podium at the Summit opening was not lost on anyone. Perhaps a little generosity of the heart on Modi’s part could have gone a long way. As the largest member and one with the ambition of becoming a world power, India must shoulder a sizeable burden when it comes to South Asia. Structurally, as Modi hinted in his speech, it might be time for Saarc to rethink its model of consensus on all agreements. Getting all eight nations to agree is a Herculean task, which has no doubt held back progress.

Published: 09-12-2014 09:40

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