Today's Editorial

04 October 2016

Allow its natural death


Source: By Vikas Kumar: Deccan Herald


Questions left unanswered in the aftermath of Pakistan's hostile reception of the Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh in Islamabad where he had gone to attend a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) meeting, have come back to haunt us sooner than expected. The terror attack in Uri has reopened the question of Saarc's viability. India has decided to boycott the Islamabad summit of Saarc as part of its (then) non/sub-military response to cross-border terrorism. However, we need to go beyond the immediate crisis and reassess the long-term usefulness of remaining committed to Saarc.

The Saarc was established in 1985 "with the objectives of promoting . . . economic growth, social progress and cultural development." Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were the founding members. Australia, China, European Union, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius, Myanmar and the United States joined as observers between 2005 and 2008. Afghanistan joined Saarc as a member in 2007 while Myanmar applied for membership in 2008. The expansion and growing international acceptance engendered the hope that Saarc will eventually evolve into a vibrant regional body unhindered by the state of Indo-Pakistan relations. However, the 2008 Mumbai terror attack and subsequent developments belied those hopes. Pakistan failed to refrain from using multilateral fora to raise bilateral issues and remained opposed to normalisation of ties with India.

For instance, Pakistan refused to support the regional transport agreements to avoid providing India with overland access to Afghanistan. India decided to go ahead with a sub-Saarc Motor Vehicle Agreement with Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal instead of waiting endlessly for Pakistan to support a Saarc agreement. This was seen as a precursor to a possible sub-Saarc grouping namely the BBIN. More recently, India approved a major project to improve road connectivity with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. India and Bangladesh have already been experimenting with international multimodal transport arrangements and are likely to codevelop ports.

On the other hand, India has reengaged Iran to access Afghanistan via Chabahar bypassing Pakistan (Afghanistan has threatened to block Pakistan's access to Central Asia if it continued to limit overland access to India). India has also engaged with Sri Lanka and the Maldives within a trilateral format. While India has already begun exploring alternatives to Saarc, Pakistan's obstinate opposition to economic and transport integration is accentuating the urgency of this task. Pakistan's sustained support to terror groups targeting Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India is a bigger challenge to Saarc's unity though.

The latter three countries did not send their ministers to the Saarc meeting of finance ministers in Islamabad. It is increasingly obvious that a dysfunctional Saarc has no future, particularly when its older cousins - the EU and the Asean - are struggling to stay together. However, the road ahead is not clear. Any search for alternatives to Saarc has to acknowledge that a combination of geographical, historical, political and ethnic factors has gridlocked Saarc. Pakistan's obsession with Kashmiris only one of these factors. A key reason for Saarc's failure is that one of its members is much larger than all other members put together.

India alone accounts for at least three-fifths of Saarc's area, population, GDP (on a purchasing power parity basis), foreign exchange and gold reserves and armed forces. The enormous resource and power differentials engender a sense of insecurity in India's neighbourhood. It bears emphasising that no single country dominates EU and Asean, hitherto successful regional organisations. India's central location within Saarc accentuates the effect of its size. India shares a land and/or maritime boundary with all other Saarc countries, but they do not share boundaries with each other (except for Pakistan and Afghanistan) and have India as their sole neighbour in the sub-continent. More over, international borders in the region are still not all settled beyond dispute. Afghanistan and Pakistan, and India and Pakistan are locked in longstanding territorial disputes that fuel conventional conflicts.

Regional disputes

Geography is not the only culprit, though. History compounds the intractability of regional disputes. The successor states of British India continue to define their relationships in terms of their unfortunate formative experiences and unresolved Partition disputes. Likewise, the colonial boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a source of dispute. Differences in political systems also hinder regional cooperation. Except for India, none of the Saarc countries is a stable, secular democracy. India's strained relations with the Maldives, where the president has almost outlawed the opposition, and Nepal where the Madhesis have not been accommodated in the new constitutional arrangement, are cases in point. The convergence of political systems is unlikely in the near future and will continue to affect relations even if India tones down its pro-democracy rhetoric.

The sense of insecurity vis-à-vis India in the region noted above, coupled with the fact that the majority community in most of India's neighbours is a minority in India has made them domestically susceptible to anti-India mobilisation and internationally desirous of external intervention in their conflicts with India. The subcontinent's strategic location in the middle of Southeast, Central and West Asia, and at the centre of the Indian Ocean, ensures an adequate supply of such intervention. The smaller countries try to bandwagon with outside powers or to balance between India and outside powers allowing the latter to exploit local fault lines.

It would be naïve to assume that Saarc minus Pakistan will be cohesive. We need to ask if any sub-Saarc grouping we might form after abandoning Saarc or expelling Pakistan from Saarc can overcome the geographical, historical, political, and ethnic hurdles that have hitherto limited regional cooperation. India should allow Saarc to die a natural death, but not rush to launch another formal all-purpose regional grouping. It should engage like-minded countries on issues of mutual interest. These initiatives will hopefully coalesce and serve as the foundation of Saarc's successor.


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