Salvaging Saarc

  • An economically prosperous South Asia may be within reach with the active engagement of both India and China
- Gopal Thapa, Kathmandu
Salvaging Saarc

Dec 16, 2014-

Now that the excitement, euphoria, and anxiety of the Saarc Summit have passed, more comprehensive reviews and stocktaking of the Summit achievements must be forthcoming. In the meantime, let me share some of my impressions.

Greater connectivity or deeper integration was the much-talked about pre-Summit topic. The theme ‘Deeper integration for peace and prosperity’ chosen for the Summit, therefore, was viewed as a true reflection of Saarc’s collective aspiration . In all fairness, the Summit only made theoretical commitments to the theme. What the Kathmandu Declaration does is merely circle around the theme, not plunge deep into it. It is conspicuously absent from making concrete and deliverable programmes and commitments with clear timelines to achieve deeper regional integration in the days ahead.

Out of the three much vaunted agreements, namely the Saarc Motor Vehicles Agreement and Saarc Regional Railways Agreement, only one, the Saarc Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation, was agreed upon at the eleventh hour and that too, reportedly, after political intervention at the retreat.

Saarc leaders also failed to suggest practical steps on developing partnership with the current Observer states. They simply “appreciated the study report of the Saarc Secretariat to review and analyse the engagement with existing observers to establish dialogue partnership”. The contents of the Declaration also appear to be the distillation of past commitments, with some addition and deletion here and there, without any element of novelty. It talks, among others, of poverty alleviation, promotion and practice of good governance, and control of corruption. Yet, it offers no national and regional roadmap to bring about real economic benefits to more than 400 plus million South Asian people still trapped in abject poverty.

Therefore, the Summit in terms of achievement was termed by many to be a ‘shallow Summit’. The successful hosting of the Summit  by Nepal and the quiet diplomacy played out by Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to bring smiles on the faces of two sulking prime ministers at the concluding session are perhaps the only concrete achievements.

Hollow handshake

Unfortunately, Indo-Pak internal political differences cast a shadow over the 18th Summit too, just as it did at the 11th Summit in 2002, also held in Kathmandu. The Indian and Pakistani   leaders’ body language all through the Summit was lamentably icy-cold. They refused to even look at each other’s faces. The gentle and persuasive diplomacy reportedly played out by Prime Minister Koirala at the Dhulikhel retreat eventually did break the ice and later, the two leaders shook hands, embraced each other and smiled. This obviously brought cheers from the audience in the hall, outside, and across in India. But, even as the two leaders were shaking hands with forced smiles on their face, the rest of the leaders, unfortunately, were reduced to mere onlookers. It made the mockery of the Charter principle of sovereign equality. It also brought into sharp focus that even after three decades, the Saarc process still has to grapple with the same old Indo-Pak rivalry and differences at every Summit. For this very reason, many believe that the handshake, this time, between the two prime ministers rang hollow.

The Saarc Summit is not meant only for Indian and Pakistani prime ministers’ handshake nor is it a mere platform for platitudes and empty promises. It embodies the hopes and aspiration of more than 400 million people for an economically prosperous, politically peaceful, and socially

harmonious South Asia. This is the reason why the handshake should not have received the same level and intensity of highlights and coverage as it did in 2002. Nonetheless, it managed to steal the show because of the unwarranted media coverage accorded by domestic and Indian media.  As a matter of fact, if anyone deserved media attention, it was the PM Koirala, whose diplomacy and humble personality dispelled the gloom and saved the Summit from turning into a fiasco.

Rescuing Saarc

If Saarc is to succeed as an effective regional economic organisation, the active and constructive economic engagement of India and China is vital to bringing real benefits to the people of the region. As for India’s colossal role in this respect, let me quote from Subramanian Swamy, chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Strategic Committee, in a recent article published in The Hindu, where he says, “Since India constitutes 70 percent or more of Saarc’s area and population, and has political conflicts with all its neighbours, India has to redefine its role, from seeking reciprocity in bilateral relations, to being prepared to go the extra mile in meeting the aspirations of all other Saarc nations”.

As for China, it shares borders with as many as five Saarc countries. Moreover, it is already engaged economically in a big way with almost all of the Saarc member countries, including India, in many infrastructure development projects, economic, and trade development activities. Therefore, there is a valid argument that Saarc member states should seriously look at China’s express interest in seeking a “strategic partnership role” in the Saarc. With the Pakistani prime minister and China’s Observer delegate leader formally raising this at the 18th Summit, this issue has assumed added significance for the region. However, this is possible only if India were to consent. Hopefully, as a seasoned and development-friendly leader, as Indian Prime Minister Modi has projected himself thus far, and with the advantage and experience of engagement with China as chief minister of Gujarat, he will take this proposal in his stride.

If member countries truly want to make Saarc more comprehensive for regional peace and prosperity, they need to absolve themselves of the Cold War mindset. For this, Saarc requires that it be more inclusive, not insular and inward-looking. The vision of an economically prosperous South Asia may be within reach with the active and constructive engagement of India on the one hand and China on the other. Otherwise a Saarc bereft of boldness and imagination, will be a Saarc of mere rhetoric sans results. This would mean the organisation gradually slipping into irrelevance and turning into a platform of empty platitudes and promises.

Thapa is a former Chief of Protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Published: 17-12-2014 09:25

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