Face of regionalism

  • Has the model used so far to achieve the goals of Saarc failed, thereby necessitating a more people-centric model?

Oct 19, 2016-

The 19th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) Summit scheduled to be held in November 2016 in Islamabad has been postponed sine die. This was not unexpected given the political imbroglio between India and Pakistan following the Uri terrorist attack. But at the same time, observers were envisaging a similar situation to the 10th Saarc Summit in Colombo (July 1998) which had sharply mellowed down the serious bilateral flare-ups that appeared after India and Pakistan had tested their nuclear bombs earlier that year. Back then, no one had anticipated that the Summit in Colombo would take place. But it did and it facilitated the signing of the Lahore Declaration in February 1999 by the then Indian and Pakistani Prime Minsters Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif. 

It was unthinkable that after such a fiercely heightened tension, these two nuclear powers would come so close in such a short span of time. 

Even so, the India-Pakistan relations hit the trough within another three months. Pakistani incursion into Kargil followed by a short-lived but costly war during 1999 and subsequent unilateral withdrawal of Pakistani troops happened so rapidly that political and strategic pundits could not even imagine it. Such was the crisis that in order to participate in the 11th Saarc Summit held in Kathmandu, Pervez Musharraf had to fly from the Chinese side as India did not allow its air space for his flight.

The recent postponement is not unusual—this was the sixth time it was postponed and sometimes even the venues have been changed. Summits have been postponed without really considering its adverse impact on the institution of Saarc. Article III in the Saarc Charter states, “The Heads of State and Government shall meet once a year or more often as and when considered necessary by the member states.” The very fact that since 1985 only 18 summits have been held reflects the unlimited flexibility that has characterised the summit schedules. 

The 5th Summit in Colombo in 1989 was postponed because of the consternation caused by the continued presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka. It was later held in the Maldives. Again, the 6th Summit in Colombo in 1991 was postponed because of the political problems in Bhutan caused by the massive expulsion of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese (Lhotsampas). Similarly, the 7th Summit in Dhaka in January 1993 was postponed due to security risks for the then Indian Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh in December 1992. Then the 11th Summit in Kathmandu scheduled for November 1999 was postponed as General Musharraf coercively ousted the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif. 

Bilateral issues

Ironically, though Article X of the Charter mentions that “bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded from the deliberations”, it has been these very issues 

which have never allowed Saarc to take off. Bilateral issues of India and Pakistan have always taken the driving seat, as reflected in the last summit held in Kathmandu, pushing the remaining six member states to literal oblivion.

 Even the heads of the state have openly trodden this forbidden path of Article X during their summit speeches. This questions the very relevance and efficacy of continuing with such norms. Moreover, there has never been any noticeable public reaction to the postponement of Saarc in its entire 31-year-old history. It truly speaks of the “non-people character of SAARC” conducted by an exclusive club of political leaders and bureaucrats. 

Unlike the lofty goals of “promotion of the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and improvement of their quality of life, acceleration of economic growth, social progress and cultural development”, Saarc has remained far alienated from the South Asian mass, their aspirations and regional development. 

Track II process

However, despite the snail’s pace progress, one of the remarkable contributions of Saarc has been its cascading impact on triggering off a whole range of activities outside the official forum. Activities of the private sectors, non-governmental organisations and civil societies across the region have, in fact, withstood all kinds of political ups and downs. There have been several regional groupings like Coalition for Action on South Asian Cooperation; Saarc Chamber of Commerce and Industry; Saarc Writers Forum, Indian Council for South Asian Cooperation; South Asia Centre for Policy Studies; South Asia Regional Initiative on Energy, Saarc Law, South Asia Network of Economic Research Institutes; Peoples’ Saarc and others that have quietly and steadily advanced the agenda of regional cooperation and integration.

Just last week, the 9th South Asia Economic Summit organised by the pioneering Centre for Policy Dialogue of Dhaka achieved another milestone with over 800 participants and 100 speakers from South Asia and abroad. Inaugurated by the Bangladeshi President and attended by several ministers including Nepal’s commerce minister, this summit discussed the most relevant and critical issues that concern all ordinary South Asians. It was truly the most effective South Asian platform.

Confidence building measures 

Loss of confidence and trust has been a core issue in the grouping constituting 20 percent of the world population. The entire spectrum of confidence building measures (CBMs) this region has put in place in the past has to be reevaluated, redesigned and rebuilt. So far, it has extensively depended on military and political CBMs like the famous “Lahore Declaration”. Yet in the last 70 years, none of these have sustained. They remain totally emasculated and ineffective. The fate of these CBMs was always determined by 5 politicians, 10 generals and 15 bureaucrats. Academics and members of the private sector and the civil society have remained in the periphery only to observe and anaylse the actions of the main actors. 

The peace and cooperation constituency in the region thus got marginalised. A majority of these CBMs were addressed towards those who had serious stakes in perpetuating the conflict. There are a few stakeholders with an interest in keeping the conflict alive, but there are countless positive stakeholders for fostering peace and cooperation. This region and the Saarc have not recognised the latter. 

On the other hand, CBMs built by the economic and social stakeholders have always sustained. Member countries have faced serious political crises vis-à-vis India, but they have been remarkably momentary and showed urgent signs of recovery mainly because of the large-scale economic and social stakes on both sides of the border. Between India and Pakistan, however, there are few such stakes.

There are serious questions that we need to dwell on. Who will account for the damage done to the credibility and standing of Saarc as a regional institution as more and more South Asians see it as nothing but an emerging paper tiger with inept politicians riding on and bureaucrats flogging it amidst the hapless poverty-stricken mass of 600 million?

How can this shallow regionalism of 31 years be made more robust and resilient in terms of functions, outreach  and  acceptability? Does it imply a paradigm shift in the mindset of India as a pivotal partner and in other seven members to shed their small-nation syndrome and misplaced apprehension of homogenisation? 

Finally, has the model used so far to achieve the goals of Saarc failed, thereby necessitating a more people-centric model?


Lama, who teaches in Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, was India’s 

representative in the Independent Expert Group set up by the Saarc Summit 

leaders in Male in 1997

Published: 19-10-2016 08:29

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