SAARC Fails to Take Off Again



Once again bilateral acrimony between India and Pakistan marred the 18th summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), questioning the purpose of its existence. Like previous summits, the coming together of the South Asian nations at Kathmandu caved in before the ineptitude and crassness of Pakistan. With this, it left a gaping hole in the roadmap to bring a turnaround in the region’s destiny mired in underdevelopment, poverty and terrorism.

Pakistan Played the Spoilsport

In fact, it all looked as if Pakistan was ready to spoil any broth India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi was preparing for the summit, which has so far proved ineffective on trade and commerce front and now on the issue of regional connectivity. Three pacts aimed at increasing regional integration through road and rail connectivity and by sharing electricity among all eight members of the association collapsed under the weight of Pakistan’s denial to put sign of approval on them. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said internal process of connectivity in his country was incomplete, it was an alibi to cut short India’s plan to stymie China’s growing influence in the region.

 SAARC: Yet to Emerge as a Growth Hub for its  Members

Consensus is the framework of the SAARC’s charter and as such any member of the group can veto a proposal. Pakistan, which showed a die-hard nature of rivalry with India by blocking  secretary-level talks in August and resorting to cross border-firing in September-October, nipped in the bud efforts to turn the region into  a magnate of business and trade. This happened at a time when the US and the European countries are looking towards east for investments.

Consequently, seeing the bearings it would have on the path of turning the region into a hub of resurgence and growth, Prime Minister Modi stepped in with warning to those who put hurdles before three pacts. “The bonds will grow. Through SAARC or outside it. Among us all or some of us. We can all choose our paths to our destinations. But when we join hands and walk in step, the path becomes easier, the journey quicker and destination closer,” the Prime Minister said at the summit. It was warning about future course of action Delhi may undertake to push the region into a hub of activity with or without Pakistan’s support. It was a warning to Islamabad which is deep in economic and energy crisis that it may lose the momentum to shape its future on the basis of cooperation and agreement.
India: Prepared to Go the Extra Mile

There was a feeling that in the course of SAARC leaders’ informal meet during their retreat at Dhulikhel, a scenic place in Nepal’s Kavre district, there would be a change in the moods of Pakistani side and they would relent for the pacts. But cold shouldering attitude continued. The Indian Prime Minister and his Pakistani counterpart who avoided looking at each other despite sharing common dais at the Kathmandu summit, chose not to wear off their stony face at the retreat also. But they exchanged pleasantries when they met face to face at the retreat.

In May this year,  Sharif along with other SAARC leaders had landed in New Delhi for swearing-in ceremony of the Narendra Modi government. During the visit, Sharif was presented with shawl for his mother by Modi, while former had offered white sari for Modi’s mother. This shawl and sari diplomacy, however, couldn’t withstand Pakistan’s anti-India policies whose print loomed large at the summit.
“SAARC doesn’t stand or collapse on the basis of three agreements”, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said philosophically, underlining the fact that Delhi’s plan to connect Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh through rail and road would progress well unhampered. A sentiment towards this was echoed unofficially by some Nepali officials when they hinted towards setting up of “sub-regional cooperation between four neighbouring countries. Significantly, connectivity was a theme which was underlined by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksha, Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay.

The moves like Free Trade Area, setting up of a Customs Union and Economic Union, visualised 16 years ago at the SAARC summit have failed to be realised up to their potential. So has been the creation of a South Asian Economic Union, South Asian Energy Cooperation and transportation, transit and communications link across the region. Amid the presence of instruments like SAFTA, less than 10 per cent of the region’s internal trade takes place under the agreement. It is said that non-integration of South Asian economies leads to losing as much as two per cent of additional growth in economy annually. This has impacted on investment factor also. It was rightly echoed by the Indian Prime Minister that “Indian companies are investing billions abroad, but hardly 1 per cent flow into our region.”

Hopes of Finding a Common Ground Linger

Nonetheless, the march towards regional connectivity would not meet a premature death. As India has made it clear that it would take upon its shoulder a responsibility to finance the programme. Along with this, it has pledged to improve facilities at borders for cross border trade and grant 3-5 year business visa for SAARC countries. It has also announced reducing paper work to make business transaction easier. India declared to address the problem of its trade surplus with neighbours and establishing cross-border industrial corridors. This apart, terrorism found a high-voltage stress. India, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan- spoke in one voice about need to remove the scourge of terrorism. In fact, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was more blunt when he, in veiled reference to Pakistan, attacked countries that “embrace and sponsor non-state actor, provide them with resources and sanctuaries and use them as proxies in their competition with other states.”